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Anyone involved in the urgent care industry knows that for most of us, the flu season and the resulting patient volume tend to be the bread and butter that feeds our business for the remainder of the year. While other services like back-to-school physicals, strep throat cases, and seasonal allergies are important, nothing can make or break the success of a clinic quite like the massive influx of patients with fevers, chills, and body aches of a banner flu season.
The bad news is forecasting flu seasons are much like predicting a celebrity marriage. You may believe it will be long and robust, but chances are it will be short-lived and uneventful. While we wish illness on no one, the length and severity of the flu season will drive many business decisions we need to make.
We know that, statistically speaking, the U.S. experiences a sentinel or pandemic season about every five to six years. The rationale behind this phenomenon ranges from hybridization of the influenza viruses (this was the case in 2009 with H1N1) to the lack of preventative care in the forms of early vaccination and early treatment of flu-like symptoms. Other complications leading to these pandemic seasons also include greater resistance to anti-viral medications as well as early and late season infection spread.
So what happens when the flu season is nearly non-existent for creating patient visits? How can your urgent care business react to the loss of revenue? What marketing tactics can be employed to help encourage patient visits?
Well, the obvious answer is to plan ahead prior to flu season. Contrary to the myths that flu vaccines cause more harm than good, the statistics are simple: according to the CDC, even in a mild flu year about 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized from influenza. Yet, only about 30 percent of adults under 50 receive the vaccination and only 50 percent of children are being protected.
Share those facts with your patients and promote getting the vaccine early. Hold vaccine clinics, have outreach programs, set up an event in your local mall or daycare, or consider an offering at nearby senior centers or churches.
While this might seem counter-productive to achieving high-patient volumes, the truth is that generating awareness early never hurts. At the very least, this becomes a marketing effort that puts your clinic front and center in the public it serves. And while influenza vaccinations have never been a great revenue generator, never discount goodwill, and community outreach.
The key is to remember that flu shots never cover every possible virus. Many strains slip through and still others manage to mutate as the season progresses. It’s also important to recall that seroconversion does not occur immediately, leaving folks susceptible to contracting viruses for up to two weeks following administration. So, educating the patient at the time of immunization provides your urgent care the best opportunity for any follow-up care should the person end up with the flu later in the season.
Another tactic to combat a lagging flu season is to monitor and promote wellness from other ailments that do arise. Typically, when influenza is not prevalent, the tradeoff is a rise in common ailments like strep, sinusitis, and URIs. Don’t give up on marketing to patients, just switch it up and remind people that it’s still important to come in, get treated, and not share germs.
Too often, the focus is so centered on promoting one particular campaign that when that fails to achieve the desired results, operators do not regroup and promote other opportunities. The key to urgent care is always to maintain top-of-mind awareness with your patient base. Informing them that you are there to take care of whatever ills they have reminds them that there is no need to put up with illness when there is a convenient, cost-effective alternative for care.
Finally, don’t forget about your ability to cross-pollinate. If your urgent care is involved with occupational medicine, seek out opportunities to generate marketing and awareness at the local businesses you serve. Employers would much rather have a healthy workforce than a high absentee rate. Consider materials (posters, brochures, or even a lunch-and-learn event) that focus on the basics of good hand hygiene, reducing germ spread, or how to keep families healthier in the home. This can be an excellent time to introduce your services to people who may not otherwise have a resource for non-emergent, cost-conscious care.
So while we cannot predict flu seasons or the volume of patients that might utilize our urgent care centers from year to year, the best advice is to recognize that influenza will keep changing. Having a back-up plan for reacting and marketing your services means you will be better prepared to sustain business regardless of the flu season at hand.