I’ve spent over 20 years as a marketer working with hospitals and other health-focused organizations. I’ve learned how to navigate the consensus-building required to create change and growth. I appreciate the complexity of the health care industry: the audiences I develop campaigns for may not “buy” my clients’ services for a long time, and their path to purchase is almost never linear. 

But there’s one thing about working in health care that I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to doing: talking to physicians.

Let me explain.

As a marketer, my clients are typically those in marketing leadership. We “get” each other because we tend to think the same. We appreciate the audiences we’re communicating to. We know that buying behavior is emotional, not rational. (We buy for the feeling and justify the purchase with logic.) We also know that marketing is both an art and a science.

And that’s what often gets me into trouble when I talk to physicians. 

I hate to generalize, especially when it comes to people. But when I think of most physicians, I think of them as:

  • Rational
  • Evidence-based
  • Using precise statements (no generalities)
  • Highly intelligent
  • Highly passionate
  • And … not marketers!

Some of the worst presentations I’ve ever given have been to physicians. They challenged my recommendations. They dissed my supporting arguments for the marketing strategy. The only time I ever had someone storm out—in sheer disgust—of a presentation I was giving, was a physician. That was over 20 years ago, and I remember that moment vividly!

I’ve learned so much in my career about marketing, building brands and engaging audiences to make health care purchase decisions. To do my job well, I must leverage my expertise. But whenever I meet with physicians, I’ve had to train myself to embody “Shoshin,” which is a word from Zen Buddhism that means “Beginner’s Mind.”

“Beginner’s Mind” is defined by Stephen Handel as:

“An attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in the subject would.”

It’s easy to diss physicians back who prefer to “tell” the marketer what to do and say in the ad campaign. Last year I listened to a seasoned, incredible Chief Marketing Officer tell a story on a panel discussion about when a physician recently tore apart her recommended marketing strategy in a boardroom meeting … and she’s the head of marketing for this health system!

There’s no excuse for just plain rudeness. But as I reflect on my earlier foibles in communicating with physicians, I realized that the error was on my part—not theirs. I was speaking like a marketer, and not as a physician. I went to school for this stuff; they likely didn’t. I eat and breathe marketing every day; they save lives. 

That’s why I try to embody Shoshin when I speak with physicians (and any audience who is even slightly different than me). 

For example, I might ask myself: What would it feel like to not know something if you’re someone who is supposed to know what is going on and is responsible for guiding the outcome?

I like to ask that question when I meet with physicians because I suspect that’s why I’ve met so many who want to tell me how to do my work. It’s their job to know! They were also trained to make decisions based on science. Marketing has come a long way since the early days of my career when proving ROI was imperfect at best. But there’s still an art to marketing that I have to appreciate my physician counterparts might not be able to fully embrace.

Here are three approaches I take to have fruitful conversations and presentations with physicians on the topic of marketing strategy:

1. I acknowledge I am not a physician. 

I like to let my physician audiences know where I’m coming from: in this case, as a marketer. This allows me to acknowledge my own training to build credibility. But even more important, I establish that to welcome them to ask me to clarify my point if it is not resonating or clear. 

2. I establish a framework for decision-making.  

In my experience, physicians don’t like to be told what to do, especially from a non-physician. So if I am seeking their approval on a strategy, I provide a framework for how to evaluate my recommendations. This is often done by sharing the research and data points that influenced my recommendations. 

3. I demonstrate empathy. 

My work is stressful, but not like a physician’s daily life. According to William Maples, MD, CEO of The Institute for Healthcare Excellence:

  • 30% of primary care physicians ages 35–49 expect to leave the industry
  • 75% of physicians would not recommend the profession to their children
  • Physicians are more likely than the general public to commit suicide

Recently, my colleagues and I interviewed a group of primary care physicians. We asked them what it’s like to be a physician today. They said:

  • “Overwhelmed”
  • “Too much time charting and writing”

But they also said:

  • “It’s the greatest honor in the world to take care of people”
  • “Making a difference is what keeps us coming back every day”

To be in health care marketing today is a great challenge: our work has never been more complex, and the stakes have never been higher to do work that matters. 

That’s why being in health care marketing today is also a great honor. We get to work with people who are making a difference. It’s easy to forget that the person who’s dissing your marketing strategy is also a human being who may be having a difficult day. 

As marketers, we know that the first step to having an impact on our desired audience is to first appreciate them. Beginner’s Mind helps me do that with physicians. 

What works for you when engaging physicians? Please help the community by sharing your perspective in the comments below.