The ROI of Marketing to​ Existing Patients

By Toni J. Eberhardt, Vice President of Marketing and Client Operations for UniteRx

As a marketing professional with experience in the retail, financial services and telecommunications industries, I am most often asked by medical practices, “How can we get more patients without a huge marketing budget?”

The answer – in the form of several questions – is generally unexpected and in some cases, provokes confusion:

  • “Why do you want more patients?”
  • “What is the churn rate among current patients?”
  • “How many of your new patients are referrals from existing patients?”
  • “What is your patient satisfaction level?”
  • “How much of your marketing budget is spent on acquiring patients vs. optimizing current patients?”

The rationale behind these questions is based on the following marketing principles: 

1. Acquisition costs increase as the patient retention rate decreases. For every new patient, a business has an associated acquisition cost, and, depending on the revenue that patient generates on a monthly basis, the breakeven point varies. Therefore, if a patient leaves before the company has broken even, then the acquisition cost of replacing that patient with a new one increases. 

2. An existing patient is more likely to buy additional services or products. The chances of an existing patient buying is 75% versus 5%-10% to convert first-time patients.1 Existing patients have already chosen your practice, enabling a major obstacle in providing additional services and products to be easily overcome. 

3. One existing patient is worth 10 new patients. According to HubSpot, “One loyal patient will do more good for your bottom line than 10 new patients. Loyal patients not only spend more over their lifetime, they also are great brand evangelists and will likely recommend you to their friends and family.” 

In most cases, an established practice wants to acquire new patients to achieve one or more of the following objectives: 

  • Replace patients who have left the practice. 
  • Increase practice profitability. 
  • Keep providers’ schedules full.

Dedicating marketing resources to existing patients can help the practice achieve all these objectives. When marketing to existing patients, the first step is to understand patient churn. 

Understanding Patient Churn

Predicting patient churn is easy. The greater the gap between your patients’ expectations and the actual patient experience, the higher the likelihood of patients leaving the practice and choosing a new provider. 

For this reason, not only understanding patient satisfaction levels is important, but identifying where, specifically, patient satisfaction is falling short is critical. Once shortcomings are identified, the next task is to determine: 

  • If the practice has set unrealistic expectations for patients. 
  • If the practice has set any expectations for patients. 
  • How to close the gap between the patients’ expectations and actual experience. 

Closing that gaps results in “customer congruency.” New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Seth Hyken defines customer congruency as, “when what we promise and what the customer receives are thought to be the same.” 

Optimizing Existing Patients

Existing patients provide two opportunities to increase the productivity and profitability of your practice cost-effectively. 

1. Marketing additional services and products to existing patients: Many dermatology offices provide both medical and cosmetic dermatology care, in addition to aesthetic services. As such, dermatology practices are consistently reviewing new services and products to add to their practice to support their patients. 

  • Marketing existing services: Perhaps the biggest challenge for full-service dermatology practices is understanding when and how to discuss elective services and products with existing patients. If presented to the patient at the wrong time, the result could be negative. For example, I know a person who went to a dermatologist concerned with bumps that had developed on her legs; the bumps appeared to be viral and spread. Unfortunately, before the provider had completed diagnosis, he said to the patient, “This skin issue is not what I focus on, but I can do something about your face,” and proceeded to discuss cosmetic treatments. While this example is extreme, it is a true story, and not surprisingly, the provider not only lost a patient, but that patient has shared the negative experience with many people. 
  • Adding services that your patients value: Innovative technologies and devices are consistently being developed across medical specialties, and dermatology is no exception, especially when it comes to cosmetic treatments. When determining when and what services to add to your practice, consider what your patients would value. For example, 75% of patients would have their prescription filled in their doctor’s office instead of a pharmacy if given the choice.2 An in-office dispensary is a low-cost way to provide a new service to your patients that will save them time and improve therapy adherence by 60%-70%, while increasing practice profitability.3 

2. Referring family and friends: More than 65% of patients in a national survey stated that referrals from family, friends and/or co-workers were their number one source for choosing a medical provider.4 Let your patients know you are accepting new patients and ask them to refer friends and family to you. 

As published in Executive Decisions in Dermatology, a publication by the Association of Dermatology Administrators and Managers (ADAM)


  1. Rustin Nethercott, Constant Contact 
  2. Opinion Research Corp & Purkinje, July 2007 
  3. New England Journal of Medicine, August 2005 
  4. American Osteopathic Association, September 2013 

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