Marketing From the Inside Out


Practice-saving Lessons From Hematology-Oncology Associates of Central NY

Lessons Learned On:
• Crafting a mission statement and logo that differentiates
• Investing in the practice website and public relations
• Using traditional advertising with standout messaging
• Implementing measurement tools and referral management protocols
• Setting long-term goals that better position the practice to compete

Empowered Care SidebarThe reimbursement environment and the competitive nature of the oncology marketplace present significant challenges for independent oncology practices--and compelling reasons to invest in practice marketing. Yet some community oncologists who rely solely on referrals may see marketing as an unnecessary expense. Those practices that do understand how necessary marketing is often struggle to identify the right investment level needed to successfully steer patients through practice doors.Maryann Roefaro, chief executive officer at Hematology-Oncology Associates of Central New York (HOA) has experienced both perspectives. Over the last 15 years she's seen the competitive landscape mount against community practices, forcing some to go under or be absorbed by the competition. Her stance: Spend smart, but absolutely spend. "Even when times are tough, cutting marketing is as egregious an error as cutting continuing education for the clinical staff. It's stifling to the growth of the practice," said Roefaro.

Lesson 1: Craft a mission statement and logo that differentiates.
When she first joined HOA in 2002 there was no marketing person on staff. The organization had previously spent its marketing dollars on ad hoc print advertising. Roefaro decided to change all that. "I immediately did something different," said Roefaro. "I took most of the marketing budget and used the money for high-level sponsorships of cancer-related foundations so that our name could start getting out there."

The challenge was that HOA had no logo, no recognizable visual that would help the organization stand out. Even more of a detriment was the lack of a strong mission statement - what Roefaro describes as a mantra for employees, a promise to patients and a litmus test by which all marketing communications should be measured. It was the creation of these two elements that gave HOA a platform from which to build an effective marketing strategy.

"After that, being a sponsor in all those high-profile places really catapulted HOA into the public eye," said Roefaro. "More importantly, it was a great way to help nonprofits and support our patients."

Lesson 2: Invest in the practice website and in public relations.
Of course, effective marketing doesn't live by sponsorships alone. HOA refreshed its website to incorporate the new mission statement and associated messaging, as well as update the platform and implement a content management system to enable easy updates. But Roefaro and her team knew that to adequately communicate the spirit of the HOA mission to the public they would need to hand deliver it. That meant investing time - a practice resource that's almost as strained as capital.

"My position is very global," said Roefaro. "I'm active in the community, on several boards and engaged in speaking opportunities wherever I can be - all the while touting HOA."

While Roefaro recognizes that her ability to remain involved in the community is largely due to her support staff who handle much of the clinical side of the business, she's quick to point out that on a day-to-day basis, every member of the oncology staff has numerous opportunities to market the practice. Roefaro recalls a patient's comment, "Everyone here is always smiling. How do you do that? How do you build an environment where everyone is always happy?" Her answer: "You have to get rid of people who aren't happy." It's a sobering reminder that it's every practice member's responsibility to create a quality patient experience. Outside of the clinical benefit to the patient, it's an essential part of marketing the practice. Those patients who have a bad experience will complain to their referring doctor, friends and family. In short: Every patient is a billboard and every staff member is accountable for the message conveyed.

Lesson 3: Mix in traditional advertising with messages that stand out.
It's worth noting that actual billboards and more traditional advertising methods are still a viable channel in marketing oncology practices. The physicians at HOA knew that, but before they could decide on the right tactic they looked at the competition for two points of differentiation, the first in messaging and the second in method.
"Our competition has a marketing budget we could never compete with," said Roefaro. "So we take different routes and communicate different benefits."
For HOA, the only cancer care center in Central New York to house a CyberKnife®, that meant communicating the benefits of CyberKnife treatment. It also meant thinking about the intrinsic value of each media purchase. While some might see high-profile, national magazines as the ideal place to be, the HOA team focused its placement efforts in local publications, those targeting female decision makers and those that provided additional value such as publication of HOA's press releases. The HOA team also thought outside traditional placement, advertising inside the public restrooms of Carrier Dome, Syracuse University's athletic stadium. Less traditional and lower cost methods aside, all this spend on marketing with little means of tracking results might prompt some organizations to question whether its dollars were being flushed down the drain. Not Roefaro.

"Community members are always mentioning the Carrier Dome ads to me," said Roefaro. "It's an 'oh, yeah' moment. 'I saw your doctors in the bathroom!' And when the print ads first started running, a referring physician told me that a patient of his had actually brought the ad in with him as reference."

The short lesson: Oncology practices shouldn't underestimate the value of name recognition.

Lesson 4: Implement measurement tools and referral management protocols
It takes time but the achievable goal is to flip the script on physician referrals, prompting patients to ask the physician to refer them to a specific oncology practice rather than the other way around. And unlike traditional advertising methods, referrals are an easy way to track progress. The HOA team reviews a quarterly physician tracking report to identify fluctuations. If the report reveals a decline, an HOA team member follows up with the referring physician to find out what might have changed.

Roefaro notes that patient satisfaction surveys are a useful measurement tool as well. Not only will they help reveal alignment of the marketing promise to the patient experience, they can also give rise to new marketing messages such as HOA's 97 percent patient satisfaction rate. More importantly, they create transparency. Clinicians will know they're doing a good job or know to rectify a poor patient experience that might otherwise lead to acrimony between the referring physician and oncologist.

Lesson 5: Set long-term goals that better position the practice to compete.
Oncology practices should understand they're playing the long game when it comes to marketing. The brand transition of HOA and its subsequent results weren't realized overnight. But as Roefaro points out, it's not just about being patient over the long-term, it's about thinking long term - being proactive in the future success of the practice.

The HOA team has worked diligently to plan for and meet goals such as getting certified by the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative (QOPI®). Years ago when the competition included the construction of a multimillion dollar cancer center, Roefaro proposed a new goal to the HOA staff and an attractive message to accompany its achievement. "I said, in three years when this new center opens up and its presence promoted, we can be marketing that we're the only oncology medical home in New York," recalls Roefaro. And in fact, HOA became one of only six oncology medical homes in the United States.

Those that are still on the fence about marketing will do well to remember that even if the practice is getting by with just referrals, today's well-informed consumers will do some investigating on their own. If they find little about the practice or if they are underwhelmed by what they do find, they will be inclined to search for other oncology practices - and there are plenty that will have them. Those conflicted about the amount of time and funding an effective marketing campaign might require should note where it all began for Roefaro. "I remember thinking if everyone functioned in a way that they loved what they were doing and loved who they were, everything would just take care of itself," said Roefaro. "By marketing HOA from the inside out, we built a culture that embraces and fosters accountability. We became united in spirit." And that has made all the difference in HOA's patient experience.

AmerisourceBergen has recently launched Innovation Cancer, a national community of independent oncologists that utilizes business intelligence tools and other resources to enable greater focus on quality care. Innovation Cancer offers business coaching by experienced industry professionals, analytic tools designed to improve practice efficiency and access to turnkey marketing resources built to drive an increase in patient engagement and referrals for member practices.

To learn more about Innovation Cancer, please visit or email us at




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