Hey [name redacted], I promised I’d send you an overview of patient acquisition and some ideas.
As you can imagine, patient acquisition is the process of acquiring new patients for the business, ideally at an upfront profit. The process is all about first building a predictable way to get new patients on repeat no matter the volume.
When there’s a clear and repeatable approach, it’s all about increasing the influx, getting more patients in the door, and running experiments to squeeze better and better performance out of the funnel over time. Meanwhile adding new funnels to either compete with it like gladiators or to supplement it in order to convert another type of patient that we couldn’t attract before.
In the grand scheme of things, patient acquisition is everything in the beginning of the business. Without any patients, there is no proof of concept, no sense of product-market fit, and no growth trajectory.
As the business progresses, patient acquisition becomes less and less important. That is not to say that it isn’t important, rather that other elements of growth tend to play a more important growth such as retention (for proof of this, compare the revenue from one sale to a new patient that doesn’t come back with multiple sales from a customer that loyally comes back when it’s relevant).
One of the fun and exciting things about patient acquisition is funnel optimization and squeezing more performance out of the existing sales funnels – the step in the middle, right between raising awareness and turning one sale into many from the same patient. I mean, where else can we spend an hour tweaking a bottleneck in the funnel and double the output?
Funnel optimization is an important part of patient acquisition but the one thing that can almost fix all problems is more targeted traffic. Together, these two elements make up the bigger box called patient acquisition.
Let’s first look at examples of patient acquisition strategies and then move on to specific channels to acquire patients.
Example playbook to acquire patients
A good patient acquisition strategy starts with knowing where we are going and which ingredients we’ll need. In order to put together a good playbook, we have to look at the following:
- The right patient acquisition metrics
- Specific patient acquisition strategies
- Patient acquisition channels
Let’s make this simple and start from the top.
The right metrics for acquisition
It’s always easier to find the best path if we know where we are going. The problem with metrics is that they tend to drive teams to focus too much on improving their number but at times forgetting (or not realizing) that the overall business growth we assumed would come from that metric, might not pan out that way.
We might first assume that a lower CAC (customer acquisition cost) is always beneficial and something we should strive for in our patient acquisition playbook. In some scenarios that is true while in others, the business revenue tanked while the growth team dominated their patient acquisition metrics because not all patients are created equal.
It’s well-known that we often have to trade a portion of CAC for volume and scale but what if we acquire low-quality patients that complain too much and significantly increase the ticket processing time for customer service and gives the marketing team a headache?
By then it becomes a problem that is pushed to another department rather than solved within the business. A good real-world example of this is when smartphone brands are promoting that they stop giving a charger with each new phone, so they can be more environmentally friendly. In reality, they push a wealth of extra boxes and whatnot to other businesses and make the worldwide problem worse but make themselves look better.
In the healthcare industry, I’ve seen this happen far too often with startups using app install ads to grow. They pay $0.50 per install and are over the moon until they realize that half of the users never opened the app, and of those who did, 80% never got beyond the first screen.
My point is that it’s harder to pick the right metric than it seems on the surface, and the only successful approach I’ve found is to pick one and be ready to change it throughout the project as you progress. If we stick to only CAC and the volume of new patients, we will do well on those metrics but also miss the bigger point of quality revenue against volume and CAC.
For most venture-backed healthcare startups, the goal is growth at all costs and the number of patients acquired per day is the most important with CAC being a secondary goal. It’s often a good enough place to start as long as we work to estimate the profitability of each project every now and then by comparing the revenue it brings in to the costs it required to execute.
It’s not rocket science but essential for us to understand the impact we are having. I imagine many of us are aware of it but choose not to assess it because we don’t want to look stupid if the numbers don’t look good or perhaps we are simply more focused on our area within the business rather than the business as a whole (and who can really blame anyone for that).
Patient acquisition strategies
Now that we have a decent idea of where we are going (we want to scale without messing with the patient lead quality and CAC), we have to look at how to get there from where we are now. There are a few ways to figure that out and build a patient acquisition playbook.
One is to map out different patient personas and build a patient journey for each one as they discover the brand on their way to becoming a paying patient.
Another way is to build different funnels based on the “temperature” and readiness to book a consultation with a physician. For example, one type of patient might be looking to understand what a certain symptom indicates compared to another who is looking for the best specialty clinic to book a particular exam at.
A third option is to forecast estimated performance for each channel and prioritize them based on how that lines up with the short vs. long-term business targets.
The most accurate approach is usually a combo between the ideas above but at some point, it becomes over-planning with diminishing returns. It’s hard to strike a good balance and a good place to start for many is to first get a quick and rough estimate of the performance by channel, then build funnels based on temperature/intent if search looks to drive the best results or build patient personas if social appears to be the best option.
You could do both for both channels but at the early stages that might be overkill since the temperature on social will be unknown and the patient persona will be unknown via search.
For example, let’s say you discover that search offers you the best balance between volume and CAC to hit the short-term business goals. Then the funnel strategy you build might look something like this if the business offers on-demand care.
- The first funnel: direct book now campaigns with hard-selling landing pages targeted towards healthcare keywords
- The second funnel: information-based, non-selling, pages or articles to offer answers to questions and recommends next steps like joining an email newsletter centered around those symptoms and diseases with casual soft-selling every week or month
- A third funnel might be in-between the first two funnels and based on a patient knowing the need to visit a physician but haven’t yet picked the best clinic for them with a comparison between popular clinics in the area
Other patient strategies might be based on targeting HR employees at companies and persuading them to spread the brand within the company or partnering with pharmacies where relevant.
The best patient acquisition channel for your startup
Not all marketing channels can be used for patient acquisition. For example, email doesn’t count and can’t be compared with channels like search or social because it doesn’t allow for us to reach new people.
People have already opted in and agreed to receive emails, and that means the channel moves further down the funnel as it doesn’t allow us to reach new people. The same goes for SMS in most countries.
Offline channels are in both camps and not really a channel in itself as it has subchannels like handing out flyers and billboard ads whether on highways or in elevators.
They can be particularly effective in the healthcare industry because of the extra trust necessary to acquire new patients. For medical tech startups, it can be hard to justify as an acquisition channel since there is almost no way to properly track its performance, and thus no way to compare CAC to other channels. Sometimes, even if the thought behind an offline campaign is patient acquisition, someone might budget it as branding to avoid scrutiny from stakeholders.
The most common patient acquisition channels are those that are performance-based with the ability to track and measure sales against costs like search/content marketing, social, display, and affiliate marketing.
So how do we decide which channel to use?
Common sense and sound judgment are obviously important, and sometimes we run into a situation where we can’t decide between two channels. Forecasting estimated results is a great way to decide because it requires little work compared to how much it can save you from going down the wrong path.
We can understand the scale, CAC, and if we can acquire patients at a profit before even starting. Here’s a basic template calculator for the most popular channels you can use to get started (click file > make a copy). It isn’t perfect, so double-check your numbers.
In this screenshot example, we can forecast if search ads might bring us a profitable return on ad spend (ROAS) to understand if it’s even possible for us to get a good outcome if we pursue this channel at all.
When we get the green light, we can run the same forecasts for other channels and compare which of them will give us the best return or what it will require for us to get the outcome we want. Since venture-backed startups usually focus on growth at all costs, that indirectly tells us that we probably will need to activate all the channels sooner or later. We can get a better understanding of which channels it makes sense for us to start with because of the resources and timeline their require to drive results, and we can scale with those that we expect to drive fewer results.
- One of the simplest ways to do patient acquisition successfully is to pick a goal and core metrics, and work your way back to where you are now
- Don’t assume that the metric you choose to measure the project on will continue to be the best metric – it might change as you progress
- Brainstorm ideas of how you might be able to scale the new patient volume when this project is successful and a contingency plan for if it fails, so you know what to do instead of feeling stressed out