Burnout among physicians is epidemic. How can medical marketers engage them fully without adding to their stress?

This question isn’t as self-serving as it sounds. Multiple surveys of the medical profession put physician burnout in the 40 percent to 50 percent range. With levels this high (can you name another ailment that afflicts every other person?), physician burnout isn’t just a crisis of profession. It’s a crisis of public health, affecting physicians and their families, patients, healthcare organizations and entire communities. The last thing a medical marketer should want is to add to a physician’s already overextended sense of obligation. (“You need to see me.” “When will you try my widget?”)

Perhaps it’s time for something we’ll call compassionate medical marketing, or cMM. (No medical marketer worth their NaCl can resist an acronym.) “Compassionate” uses a lowercase c to remind us marketers that compassion is an act of humility, and humility, far from being a lowercase doormat, can be an uppercase strength. “With humility comes wisdom,” goes the ancient proverb (Proverbs 11:2). “If leadership has a secret sauce, it may well be humility,” states The Economist (Jan. 26, 2013).

I think cMM has at least four key principles, all deriving from the humble perspective that physicians are people first, prospects second or even third:

Principle #1. Assure them you know their patients come first.

Not long ago, a plastic surgeon and a psychiatrist wrote in a Medical Economics blog that doctors resist burnout best in a system in which they are “enabled, empowered, and encouraged to do the job of taking care of the patient above all else.”[i] When developing marketing materials—or even before that, when writing the creative brief—go beyond WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), and state WIIFTP (what’s in it for the patient?). That is the clinician’s ultimate concern. Describe the difference your product makes possible, and you’ll have an avid listener.

Principle #2. Talk not just Triple Aim, but Quadruple Aim.

Over many years and many interviews with physicians, I’ve been struck by how often they put their needs last, behind their patients, their staffs and their families. We marketers have been trained to speak in the Triple Aim terms of healthcare reform: Improve outcomes, improve the patient experience and reduce costs. Add a fourth aim: Improve the physician experience. In your message strategy, let clinicians know they come first, too—and are not merely instruments of better scorecards and balance sheets.

Principle #3. Speak to them in their language.

Your chief medical officer can be a remarkably effective chief marketing officer. So make your CMO your CMO. Calling up an old schoolyard taunt, it takes one to know one: Your medical officer can understand not just intellectually but viscerally the day-to-day challenges of clinical practice. They know firsthand just how frustrating EHRs can be. They get the moral tension that can arise between taking an oath to always put the patient first and meeting an “efficiency” goal of shorter office visits. They read the same medical journals and digest the same fusillade of clinical data being published daily. Privately, they can acknowledge shared frustrations—an empathetic approach that helps customers feel heard. Put your CMO in front of your chief medical customers for truly effective selling—with empathy paving the way.

Principle #4. Remember: It’s all about control.

“We are a hyper-responsible, control-freakish lot because legislation requires it and everything in our preparation and training has conditioned us to be so,” writes the pair of physician-writers cited earlier. They and other physician-writers have acknowledged that clinicians are not good at setting boundaries, to the extent of potentially harmful self-sacrifice. (To take this to the extreme, the suicide rate among physicians is twice that of the general population.) Much of medical marketing emphasizes better, faster, cheaper, more efficient … when what really matters to the clinician is, “Will I be more in control of my patient’s illness or condition and will my patient be more in control? Ultimately, will I be more in control of my own destiny—something I trained long and hard for?”

Physicians can and do put up with a lot. Many are burning out over loss of control over their days and livelihoods, issues far more significant than the daily irritants of medical practice. Maybe you or your product can’t fix the healthcare system or make EHRs less time-intensive or coding less confusing. Maybe you can’t lengthen office visits. But something in what you’re offering can give a physician greater control—over a visit, over a reimbursement, over the pathogen invading a patient’s body, over the progression of a disease, over how they spend their days. Tell them what that is. Try compassionate medical marketing. You may find the sale you make is merely the bonus to the greater good you’ve done.

[i] Talbot SG and Dean W. Beyond burnout: The real problem facing doctors is moral injury. Medical Economics blog. March 15, 2019.

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