Practice Notes

4 reasons your physicians don't read your emails (and what to do about it)

by Matt Cinque and Anderson Williams

Physicians want to care for their patients. It is their first priority and true professional calling—and certainly every executive strives to support them in this mission.

But often, the sheer volume of well-intentioned communications to support, engage, and align physicians can be overwhelming. Not only does this cause physicians to tune these efforts out, but it also breaks front-line physicians' trust in executives to understand them, or their work as professionals.

Here are four critical mistakes we've seen made over the years, and simple ways to fix them and begin restoring trust.

1. The 'spray and pray' approach

This is the most common mistake we see, and it really boils down to three main issues: too many messages, on too many channels, on too many topics (from performance-related messages to gift shop updates, and everything in between). We've seen leaders try tactic after tactic—sending emails, actually printing and hand delivering emails, fax blasts, cafeteria table tents—in the hope that something will work.

In the era of social media and mobile communication where it seems that more communication always equals more attention, it's easy to think that is what is needed to reach physicians. But physicians are busy, and first and foremost focused on their clinical work, so they have only limited time (not to mention interest) to read communications from leadership. When all the messages and channels become too much, they just blur together into noise that physicians all too easily tune out.

The solution: Create a dedicated channel between physicians and executives, and protect it so others can't send out non-critical messages. No gift shop updates, no cafeteria menus, just the operational, strategic, and performance-related messages physicians and medical group leaders must share.

2. Communicating at, not with, physicians

How we communicate says a lot about the nature of our relationships. Like any of us, physicians want to feel respected in their work. They like to be heard, and they want to be acknowledged as the specialists they are. So, when executives get into the habit of only telling physicians what—or what not—to do, they're only driving disengagement.

The solution: Engage physicians as experts in finding solutions by soliciting regular feedback. While seeking this out during regularly scheduled face-to-face meetings is a good start, you can take this a step further by leveraging technology (such as online surveys and apps) to make it faster, easier, and more frequent.

3. Sending one-size-fits-all emails

In response to the all too common complaint of "too many emails," many medical groups have responded by sending longer newsletter-type emails at a lower frequency. While we applaud the effort to cut down on emails sent, this has actually created an entirely different problem: Physicians don't have time to read through a five-page newsletter and find the small blurb related to their specialty. Bundling content does make less noise, but it also ends up muting the content.

The solution: Good communication is based on frequency, dose, and relevance for the recipient, so break up your newsletters and send each snippet to the small, targeted audience it is intended for. And if you're looking for a response, don't bury the lead—put it in the subject line or beginning of the message.

4. Not making use of data

Traditional communication channels, like basic email or chat functions, provide little to no insight as to what physicians are reading, responding to, and clicking on—instead leaving executives to guess if physicians even saw their messages in the first place. But without knowing how communication is performing, you have no way to know what's working, and what isn't. You can't get better.

The solution: Invest in a communication tool that will help you understand how physicians are engaging in content. This will not only show you how communication is doing, but will also help guide other physician engagement efforts. And if physicians aren't engaging at all, you can more efficiently invest in the necessary face-time and relationship building efforts.

The bottom line

The relationship between physician and executive is far too important to both patients and the organization to ignore. By tackling both how and what you communicate in tandem, you can use it as a main driver to align and engage physicians. And while communication is not the only factor affecting physician engagement, you cannot improve engagement without improving communication. By addressing these four mistakes, you can begin to develop a better communication strategy that will rebuild trust, reduce stress, and drive performance improvement.

Next, download our physician communication toolkit

Advisory Board experts have put together four best practices, accompanied by resources and case studies, that can help you revamp your communication strategy and get critical messages to all physicians on your medical staff.

Download the physician communication toolkit now to learn how to build a scalable communication platform; curate physician-centered content; deliver attention-grabbing messages; and facilitate forums for meaningful dialogue.

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