The channel is comprised of a wide variety of professionals with differing skill sets, cultures and knowledge bases. It is influenced by complicated economic and political dynamics, which are now in a period of unprecedented flux.
Over the last 10 years, many companies have tried to enter with a tenuous “stick a toe in the water” approach. The vast majority of them pull out quickly, after considerable expense and frustration. At the same time, some of the biggest success stories in the industry as a whole have been in the practitioner channel, where good science and the highest quality and ethical standards are rewarded with premium prices.
Success in the channel requires top-level products backed by strong science, and well-considered strategies executed by leaders with long-term vision and commitment to the channel.
Here are some ideas to help guide effective practitioner marketing strategies.
Look Before You Leap: “Unlike retail, barriers to entry into the practitioner channel are significantly higher,” said Dan Lifton of Quality of Life Labs, the U.S. branch of a Japanese company that has been working in the practitioner space for many years. “While you have a lot of niche players, the existing dozen of top companies will dominate.”
Kyle Bliffert, an executive at Atrium Innovations, Quebec City, Canada, believes the price of entry will continue to increase. “Compared to the prior 10 years, the channel had fewer new entrants over the past decade. It seems that the barriers to entry are substantially higher due mainly to the presence of more mature leading brands in the market and the requirements of DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act). Enhanced enforcement of cGMP’s (current Good Manufacturing Practices) by FDA is having an impact on the industry in general and practitioner brands specifically. Today’s manufacturer has to meet the highest standards of manufacturing excellence and this is an expensive undertaking.”
Avoid Channel Conflict: If your practitioner line is an extension of a larger consumer brand, you need to be careful in harmonizing the two lines so they don’t: A) compete with each other; B) create price differentials that put practitioners in the unenviable position of charging patients more for a product that is much cheaper in retail; C) create brand name confusion.
Some “hybrid” companies differentiate their practitioner lines via higher doses or specialized formulations not available at retail. “Doctors seem to be looking for ingredients/products that are sold exclusively to the practitioner market. This can eliminate price concerns with retailers,” said Jeremy Holt, of Ajinomoto USA, Fort Lee, NJ, a branded ingredient company that has garnered considerable success with practitioners in recent years.
Understand Practitioner Psychology: Know your customers’ pain points, and their hidden needs. For example, MDs these days are forced to serve many “masters,” including: Medicare & Medicaid, private insurers, state medical boards, professional societies and the standards they set, trial lawyers, utilization auditors and, of course, their patients and families.
Conflicting demands create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. The more you understand about their conflicts, the more effectively you’ll be able to position yourself and your products as a help and a solution, rather than another unknown source of stress.
When doctors say, “Show me the science,” they’re really saying, “Help me feel confident and secure that I’m doing right by my patients and that you’ve got my back if something goes wrong.”
Also keep in mind that many practitioners were at the top of their classes in school. They’re used to acing exams and knowing the answers. They don’t like coming up short when patients ask questions. That’s why a dedication to practitioner education is a major key to success in the channel.
Meet the Unmet Needs: Identify common chronic disorders for which conventional medicine has limited treatment options and position your products toward these. Lead with what’s unique in your line. “‘Me too’ products that use borrowed science do not have the same kind of support in the practitioner channel,” said Katie Ferren, brand manager for Aliso Viejo, CA-based Metagenics, a top-selling practitioner brand.
Jeff Hilton, president of Integrated Marketing Group, Salt Lake City, UT, said he sees definite growth in, “condition-specific supplement formulas targeted toward cognition, cardiovascular, joint and immune function.”
Think Beyond Your Product: To be an effective addition to a clinical practice, your product must not only help improve the patient’s health, it also needs to help the practitioner improve his or her practice. You need to understand as much as you can about the economic and administrative pressures your customers face.
Evan Zang, director of sales, Southwest Region, Vital Nutrients, Middletown, CT, pointed out that many naturopaths—a core constituency in the practitioner space—are struggling. “Two out of every five new ND grads are ‘going out of business’ within the first year of graduation. DCs do a little better, but not much. Lack of practice management education is mostly to blame for these failures.” If you can think beyond the immediate health benefits of your products, and focus on how your company can help practitioners thrive, you’ll have a much stronger position in the long run.
Know the Laws About Dispensing: There is nothing inherently illegal about a physician recommending or dispensing supplements, but be aware that state regulations vary widely in their degree of latitude, and state medical boards vary in their level of tolerance for dispensing.
Though no states have banned or outlawed practitioner dispensing of supplements, some have taken a decidedly negative stance. The State of New Jersey, for example, prohibits—at least on paper—physicians from profiting on products sold to patients. Doctors there are legally permitted to sell products, but they’re not supposed to make any profit from it.
It is especially important for field representatives and regional managers to know the regulations—and the enforcement climate—in the areas they serve.
Begin with the Basics: “For doctors who are just getting started with nutrition, you have to start with what is familiar to them,” said Nate Freeman, senior director of marketing for Ortho Molecular Products, Stevens Point, WI, a leading practitioner brand. “They’re used to working with medications, so helping them understand the benefits of supplements in this context is important. Teaching ‘green’ medicine is a good start that builds confidence by getting clinical results. Ultimately, they will start to see the deeper connections of functional medicine and that is when their education becomes more sophisticated.”
Don’t Assume Too Much … Or Too Little: “Many companies assume too much existing knowledge among practitioners,” said Mr. Hilton. “Most practitioners—especially the MDs and nurses—do not know the nutraceutical category very well, and need to be educated and taught how to use and recommend these products.”
Learn Many ‘Languages’: The various practitioner segments all have their own cultures and “languages.” If you want your products to span multiple niches, you need to become “multilingual.” Andy Greenawalt, CEO of Emerson Ecologics, Manchester, NH, speaks from experience, given the wide variety of practitioners his company serves. “An acupuncturist would speak about a product differently from a chiropractor, and differently from a medical doctor. This makes marketing difficult,
as it’s tough to speak all languages in one communication.”
Understand Interdisciplinary Dynamics: There are many inter-practitioner power battles in healthcare. In the conventional system, specialists vie for “turf” and try to limit each other’s scopes of practice. Unfortunately, it’s not so different in the “alternative” world.
Be aware of the fault lines and make sure your marketing materials speak respectfully. Some physicians object to being called “providers” (an insurance term forced on them). Nurses—a rising force in healthcare—do not like to be called “physician extenders” or “mid-levels.” Naturopaths want to be recognized as doctors or physicians, though the mainstream does not generally acknowledge them as such.
These may seem like insignificant points, but your sensitivity to these issues increases the odds that diverse practitioners will view your company as an ally.
Erik Goldman is the editor of Holistic Primary Care-News for Health & Healing, a quarterly medical news publication covering the field of holistic healthcare for an audience of roughly 65,000 primary care physicians. He is also co-founder of “Heal Thy Practice: Transforming Primary Care,” an annual conference focused on business models for integrative healthcare practices. He is currently collaborating with Greg Stephens & Windrose Partners to develop the first Health Practitioner Marketing Forum, an educational gathering on opportunities and challenges in the healthcare practitioner channel. For more information contact Erik at: 212-406-8957 or Erik@holisticprimarycare.net.