Look at regional patterns for sleep lab success

Many sleep lab owners and managers looking to establish or grow their practices endeavor to do so using straightforward marketing efforts directed at patients and referrers. But according to one expert in the field, this “build it and they will come” approach often results in misplaced efforts to grow the business.

In addition to owning a number of sleep diagnosis centers, Joe Petrolla is the president of Seeley Medical, a full-service medical equipment company in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. He’s worked in the healthcare sector since 1988 as a business owner as well as in sales and marketing, most notably as director of sales development for Respironics.

Mr. Petrolla contends that when it comes to developing and growing a sleep lab practice, ignoring local patterns of diagnosis, referral, and treatment will most likely result in wasted marketing efforts. These patterns vary from region to region, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

When setting up sleep lab centers in his county, Petrolla examined the practices of general practitioners in the region. “One of the things we found out,” he states, “was that there was a low level of awareness about the prevalence of sleep apnea. When we asked how many sleep apnea patients they saw in a year, physicians reported ‘only a handful.’”

Petrolla discovered that when faced with a patient complaining of extreme fatigue, the physician’s first course of intervention was often a blood test and subsequent referral to a specialist. “The possibility of a sleep disorder wasn’t the first thing they considered,” states Petrolla. “They rarely asked how the patient was sleeping and whether or not he snored, for example.” Additionally, the physician’s own clinical practice was being adversely impacted by this “referral first” approach.

Armed with this information, Petrolla was able to take a tailored approach toward increasing referrals to his sleep center. He managed to convince physicians that sleep diagnosis could become a larger part of their regular practice if they engaged the services of an independent sleep lab rather than referring patients to a specialist. Physicians were encouraged to take part in sleep diagnosis training, and this prompted the realization that they had potentially missed diagnosing a sleep disorder in a number of their patients.

This detailed groundwork resulted in the ability of general practice physicians to grow their own practices by diagnosing sleep disorders in patients without referring them to a specialist. Surprisingly, because the physicians were recognizing more sleep disorder cases, referrals to specialists didn’t drop off as one might expect. A higher number of patients diagnosed meant a higher number of patients who required specialized care, so everyone involved benefitted. Utilization of independent labs for diagnosis of sleep disorders also improved the speed of care and maintained the relationship that had been established between the primary care physician and patient.

Without taking the time to look at the diagnostic, referral and treatment patterns at play in his region, Petrolla says he would have “missed the boat” in terms of how to best market his sleep diagnosis services. He’s careful to point out, however, that directly promoting awareness of sleep disorders to patients and physicians also has its place.

He explains that one of the most effective ways his company drove demand was to have “Do you snore?” awareness posters in physician exam rooms. This often prompted a conversation between patient and doctor that otherwise might not have occurred.

How important do you think diagnosis, referral and treatment patterns are for building your practice? We’d love to hear your comments.

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