Targeting Orthopedic Surgeons When Surgery Is On Hold [PODCAST]

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MedShape is a medical device company for Orthopedics. Learn how they used digital marketing strategies to engage their audience this year.

Episode 40: Targeting Orthopedic Surgeons When Surgery Is On Hold

Hey everyone. This is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. At Creative Outhouse we create brilliant content and integrated marketing campaigns. Just go to Creative and click on Creative Work if you don’t believe me. This episode with Kathryn Smith of MedShape is really enlightening. MedShape supplies foot and ankle surgeons with advanced devices for surgeries. Most ortho procedures were stopped for a few months. So who would have a better overall picture of how that’s starting to pick up than the people who supply the materials for surgery? And their customers are primarily Doctors. So I wanted to hear what’s changed in terms of how to market to an audience that’s always part of the marketing mix in healthcare. I learned a lot talking to Kathryn and you will too. So enjoy. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.

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My guest today is Kathryn Smith, Director of Marketing for MedShape. Kathryn holds a doctorate in Bioengineering from Georgia Tech. So I have a lot of questions about that career path. She’s been with MedShape for more than nine years. MedShape makes advanced medical devices using foot and ankle surgeries. The COVID-19 crisis brought about 80% of medical procedures to a halt, and foot and ankle surgeries are among those procedures. We’re going to talk about marketing in this environment and what it looks like moving forward. Thanks for joining me, Kathryn.

Kathryn: Thanks, Rudy. I’m happy to be here.

From Bio-engineering to Marketing

Rudy: So, the first question is personal. What stands out to me is you have a PhD in Bioengineering. And now you’re a Director of Marketing. So tell me about that journey.

Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the number one question I get all the time. I got my PhD in Bioengineering. I started with MedShape after I graduated, working on the R&D side, actually as a Postdoc, which is a typical position. After you get your PhD you go on to do further research and publish. MedShape is a unique company in that we’re very research-focused, for our size. We probably have more PhDs on staff than a typical medical device company. And so I started out doing benchtop research around our products, collecting data to publish. So I started working more with our surgeons or surgeon customers on these studies, spending more time out in the field in surgeries. As we started to launch more products and helping train the surgeons on the products and then get feedback for our pipeline. That eventually transitioned into a marketing role. I started out as a marketing associate, and then have been the marketing director for about six years now.

I didn’t know anything about marketing when I started. I’ve definitely learned a lot along the way. What I have learned is, marketing medical devices is very similar to being a researcher. If you’re a scientist, you’re collecting data and then you’re trying to figure out how best to tell the story around your data. Be it in a presentation or conference presentation or in a paper and marketing medical devices or marketing, in general, is the same thing. You’re crafting the story around your products. And given my technical background, I think that’s definitely proven to be beneficial for me and the technical nature of our products to be able to understand the data around it and then be able to figure out how to effectively communicate it to our customers.

Translating Medical Technology Into English

Rudy: So what was the most challenging part of that transition from the clinical side to the marketing side?

Kathryn: I think understanding more of the sales side. I was very knowledgeable on our products, but understanding how to really effectively communicate that, not just to our surgeons, but to our sales team and work with independent sales distributors. Understanding that model, how that system works is definitely a very different mindset from the lab.

Rudy: We do a lot of healthcare, so we see that play out. We usually act as the translator. So we’ll take the complex medical issue and turn that into something that will connect emotionally in a way that people can understand. That’s the easy part. For us.

Kathryn: And that’s the part I think that I realized. I’ve enjoyed this career path. It’s just being able to figure out how best to communicate, how our products work and the technology around it to surgeons and other people in the industry. It’s definitely my passion.

Crafting the Story Around Medical Research

Rudy: Do you feel like you get to use the Bioengineering side as well when you market the product?

Kathryn: Not as much as I’d probably like, but I do in some aspects. We’re an orthopedic device company focused primarily on foot and ankle, but our devices use this unique metal technology called nitinol. That has unique mechanical properties. And so due to the mechanical properties, it produces a specific response to bone. Some of my background in my PhD was around studying this. Looking at the bone healing response to different shape changing materials like this nitinol material. So definitely, we’re always on working with the other PhDs in the company to kind of craft the best story around our research. I’d say probably like 20-25% of the time, I’m still leveraging that part of my background.

Rudy: So what types of surgeries does MedShape, provide devices for?

Kathryn: We’re primarily focused on foot and ankle. Our devices are designed for reconstruction or repair procedures. So for example, for bunion procedures, we have a couple of different devices that can be used. There are our flagship products, the DynaNail is used for reconstructing your hindfoot. And this actually addresses very challenging patient populations, diabetic neuropathy patients, obese populations. A lot of these people have had these conditions over time. This eventually leads to some problems and significant pain in their foot. They rely on these procedures to relieve the pain. And so, in many instances, we hear from our surgeons, our products are used kind of as a last resort before amputation. So the patient might have undergone multiple procedures before that, and know that they just had not been successful and just continued to have significant pain. Many become completely immobile, or unable to work and not be able to live their lives. A lot of times they’ll receive our products, specifically the DynaNail, as a last resort. The surgeon is considering amputating at this point, and they’ll give it one last shot It’s incredible the stories we’ve heard. That’s one thing we love highlighting and really what makes me passionate about my job and working with this company is hearing how patients’ lives have improved. We’ve been able to save their lives with our products.

Rudy: Who then are your customers for the devices?

Kathryn: We primarily work with orthopedic surgeons. Usually, they’re trained in foot and ankle specialties. And then we also work with podiatrists too and some trauma surgeons too, but all orthopedic.

The Return of Elective Orthopedic Surgeries

Rudy: During this crisis a lot of the elective procedures or at least the procedures for non-life threatening events have been put off for several months. Now we’re starting to see things open up. So part of me thinks there’s been this huge buildup. The demand has not gone away, it’s still there. These people need these procedures. But then on the other side of it, a lot of people are losing their jobs and insurance. So what have you seen from the physicians you communicate with? What kind of trends do you see happening right now?

Kathryn: Yeah, its interesting. We’ve kind of had these discussions internally in terms of what’s the ramp up going to look like now that they’ve opened back up on selected surgeries? Speaking with a lot of our surgeons, there’s definitely a backlog there. There seems to be a number of patients willing to go ahead and have these surgeries. Now, as I mentioned, a lot of our patients that receive our products, at least, these are very critical procedures. They’ve already been suffering for some time. And, even though they’re considered elective procedures, they’re definitely important for the patient. So, it seems like these patients are more willing to go ahead, knowing that there’s some safety in place. They seem to be willing to go ahead and have these surgeries.

Definitely we’re hearing from surgeons that are wanting to wait, put those procedures off. Those are probably more of your lifestyle procedures. They like a bunion procedure or something like that. Those seem to be pushed out. But most of the surgeons we talked to, they seem to be, ramping back up fairly quickly. If anything, the limiting factor is just the hospitals themselves. They’re wanting to take precautions and slowly ramp back up their umber of elective surgeries as they continue to manage the pandemic on their end. So that really seems to be the limiting factor. Orthopedic surgeons seem ready to get back to business. I was speaking with one earlier today, one of our customers, and he was saying they’re looking at ways to add on surgeries on the weekends just to meet the backlog that they’re expecting to come in, and probably continue for quite some time.

The Economics of Hospital Systems

Rudy: Yeah, we’ve worked with orthopedics and with orthopedic surgeons, and Yes, they’re very “gung-ho”. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, I can see they’re ready to go. So yeah, because of this stoppage, really of these types of procedures. There have been a lot of layoffs as well. You know, I imagine not to the surgeons themselves, but I’m guessing they’ve laid off a lot of support staff. Is that what’s going on in the ortho world?

Kathryn: Yes, it definitely seems like that. From what I’ve heard and talking to surgeons, it’s support staff, the external admin, marketing. For a lot of these hospital systems, because they had to delay elective surgeries and were just focused on the pandemic, they are losing money right now. So it definitely seems like a number of people are being furloughed. And even some of our surgeons are having to take furlough days are being asked to take furlough days to help with that. It definitely seems to be impacting everyone across all different hospital systems.

Messaging for Orthopedic Medical Devices

Rudy: So has this caused you to change your message to surgeons or in terms of what you’re saying to them and marketing your products?

Kathryn: I’d say our messaging currently is still the same. And obviously, we’re sensitive to the current environment and we’ve tried to communicate that to our customers in the industry and recognize, there’s a larger issue going on right now. A larger crisis. These orthopedic procedures are definitely secondary. And so we’re sensitive to that. But our messaging remains the same. How we deliver that message has definitely changed.

Most of our marketing efforts were directed at in-person marketing meetings, dinners, doing labs, that kind of thing. Particularly with our products, since it has this unique technology, it’s sometimes hard to convey that without a surgeon getting their hands on it. Particularly orthopedic surgeons, they are very tactical. I’d say we’ve definitely had to adapt from doing this in-person marketing to more virtual marketing efforts, more digital marketing over the past couple of months.

Digital Marketing for Orthopedics

Rudy: When you say digital marketing, do you mean ads? Or did you mean phone call? What do you mean when you say digital marketing?

Kathryn: For digital marketing, we had a presence on social media already for the past couple years,  that a big focus of ours. But we’ve just invested more effort into that. You know, we’re very active on social media and we’ll actually engage a lot of our surgeon customers who post case examples. We’ll utilize their network to be able to expand our engagement on social media with them. And they’re all very excited, particularly now, over the past couple months. They weren’t doing surgery, they were very excited to be able to be more engaged and share our posts and share our content on social media. So that’s been one way. The other way has been through webinars.

I think in general right now, because we can’t be in person, the next option is do this virtual trainings and do these webinars. It has actually worked out very well for us. We’ve used a lot of our surgeon customers, or key surgeons to present on our different products or technology and talk about new techniques. We use it not only as promotional content, but also as a training tool for new surgeons and we found we’ve been able to leverage this to get new targets and potential new accounts out of it, which was not expected. Mostly at this point, we’re just trying to continue to engage our current customers and stay front of mind during this time. But yeah, we found it’s been very useful for us and probably something we’ll continue to do moving forward.

Opportunities to Reach New Customers

Rudy: I think a lot of people are of the mind of “let’s just try not to lose what we have in terms of our customer base”. But it sounds like you’re actually reaching new people. And I’ve heard that from a few people actually. My suspicion is, obviously, surgeons are busy, and they don’t have time to investigate a lot of times a lot of new products. They probably have a limit to how many new things it can start, you know, when they’re not doing surgery. But right now, they have some spare time, and they have time to learn about new products, new things and new procedures. Do you think that’s the case?

Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely talking to our surgeon customers. Once this all started and their surgical volumes were going down, they were reaching out to us to find out more about our company and these were our current users. And then by doing these webinars, we were able to touch new customers. And like you said, most surgeons, at least orthopedic surgeons had all this downtime. So they were more open to watching the webinars. We’ve had more attendance on these than we’ve had previously in the past when we’ve done them. And so with that, they’re also open and have more time for learning about new products, new technology and seeing how that fits in. So for us, we’ve definitely felt it’s a great time to capitalize on that.

Rudy: We were just doing some research for a client that was a small city. And, you know, we did find that more people are attending city council meetings than ever before, because they’re virtual, People have the time first of all, and secondly, they’re we’re eliminating that geographical barrier now. So I wonder how much of this will remain. Because when things start up again, the surgeons are going to get busy again. But still, there’s more of an opening to do these things, and put them out than before.

Digital Customer Engagement

Kathryn: I think to your point, definitely that’s a question we have right now. How is this going play out as the surgeries return? Hopefully everything returns more back to normal. Speaking with our surgeons, they seem to be open to this continued trend of webinars and virtual learning. And like you said, part of it’s just making it easier logistically. You don’t have to travel somewhere and you can just log in online at any point. So it probably fits in better with their busy schedules just to be able to watch the webinar. One question we have is, we do a lot of these society meetings, things like that and will exhibit and have a booth there and in speaking with surgeons there. It seems like there might be a trend towards having less in-person meetings and offering more programs online. So you don’t even have to travel to the meeting, you could just watch the Scientific Sessions online. Even companies could be involved in that format as well and have their presentation. They didn’t seem to be receptive to that, at least a lot of the ones we’ve been talking to. So it’ll be interesting to see moving forward, on how that plays out.

Rudy: I don’t know. Because, you know, you can say you’re gonna do something, life tends to get in the way. You’ve got work and kids and all the other things.

Kathryn: Exactly, very true.

Launching a New Medical Product

Rudy: So, in the midst of all this MedShape launched a new product. What is this product launch been like, compared to other product launches?

Kathryn: Obviously, we didn’t plan to have it to launch it during this time. It was something we decided not to delay but we’ve definitely had to change our procedure around the launch. Originally, we had planned to launch the product in April. With not having elective surgeries and options that didn’t really make sense. It’s definitely a product that’s used primarily in elective surgeries. So we decided to delay the launch of that. But then, we wanted to be strategic in terms of knowing when our surgeon is going to be returning to elective surgeries and could use the products.

So we’re currently in a beta launch or soft launch right now and that is a typical procedure for us. So we started doing surgeries a couple weeks ago with a select group of surgeons. Typically we work with a key group of surgeons that are very close to the company. They are familiar with our technology and products. We have had to kind of adapt a little bit given some surgeons still are not doing elective surgery yet. Right now we are monitoring how the ramp up continues with elective surgeries and when it makes sense to go to a full launch. Typically we’ve done more in-person marketing around the launch.

A lot of times our launches are planned around a society meeting we will be exhibiting at or will do some labs or in-person trainings around the launch. We also just attend the surgeries themselves. During those initial cases, we’ll have somebody, either myself or somebody in our engineering team, attend the surgeries and help train the surgeons on the product. We get feedback firsthand so that we can make any quick changes before we roll out to a full launch. We’ve just tried to rely a lot more on virtual training. So we’ve done some zoom meetings and tried to have enough of print collateral available and training materials and just stay really close to our surgeon customers right now through this initial launch since we can’t be there firsthand.

Rudy: It sounds like you get together and you discuss What are the best options, given the circumstances? You know, obviously we’re in unique circumstances. So the best option is to market this thing or communicate to surgeons, etc. What are some of those discussions? What are some ideas that people consider that were thrown out? What are some ideas that you think might be interesting?

How to Engage Orthopedic Surgeons

Kathryn: I think the number one thing for us was the webinars we were, How can we continue to reach and engage our surgeons? Are webinars the best way to do that, be it like a formal organized, national webinar where we promote and get people to register and log on? Or should we be doing more localized training? So we’ll have surgeon customers and somebody internally will lead a webinar with a small group of our sales reps or surgeons. They train them individually on the product. I think that’s really been the main focus and then just trying to find ways to get creative on social media. Like I said, that’s become a focus of ours. And, how are ways we can showcase our surging customers? We’re finding, particularly during this time, how to showcase our products differently using digital media videos, that kind of thing, and then post on social media as well.

New Healthcare Marketing Tactics

Rudy: Yeah. So I guess that would be a strategy to help your surgeons promote themselves.

Kathryn: Exactly. And then most are looking for that. And they’re more than willing to share our content with their patients or their colleagues. I think the peer to peer marketing, or utilizing surgeons in that regard to be very successful right now to since they have the downtime, and they’re obviously trying to figure things out together amongst their colleagues on how best to proceed. So there seems to be a lot of communication just around what products they’re using and we’ve been able to leverage that aspect as well.

One example I’ll mention, this is actually something I would say it’s pretty creative that we’ve come up with. We started this probably a couple years ago, but we utilize an app called Cluster. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that or not. It’s actually a wedding photo app. You can post your wedding photos and then share them with friends and family. Well, we’ve created our own Cluster groups with our surgeons. So we have a Cluster page for each of our products, and we invite our surgeons and only surgeons will post content to the page. It’s a forum where they can share their cases, their x-rays and their different cases using our products and then can talk about it, share, like, and comment. Or, you know, what was the treatment protocol for this one and everything like that. We’ve found it’s starting to gain more popularity. I’ve noticed over the past couple of months, we’ve seen more surgeons posting and part of it, probably they have more time and so they’re finally looking at this platform. It’s just a way for them to engage with their colleagues.

Rudy: I’m so happy to hear that because we were with an academic medical center several years back, and we recommended something like that. We didn’t know about Cluster, but something exactly like that where it could be peer to peer, and that way that you would be the home base of that. I mean, I think they communicate with each other, positions that don’t work together often communicate with each other. But still in that sort of platform where you just get to discuss cases like you do in an academic medical center a lot, but not in other settings. So that’s great that you give them that platform. But what do you think are some things from marketing from a healthcare point of view from this crisis that you think are good that we’ve learned? What is going to be a good thing moving forward?

Data Driven Healthcare Decisions

Kathryn: You know, I think this whole online marketing, online training and, even there’s been a lot of talk around telemedicine. Surgeons said they’ve been doing a lot of telemedicine the past couple of months in lieu of seeing patients firsthand. And I don’t think that’s ideal for them, particularly for orthopedic surgeons, like I said, they’re very tactful, it’s helpful to get their hands on the problem. But I think people are realizing it can be a suitable substitute in certain instances. There’s a balance there potentially, moving forward with using telemedicine versus in-person appointments. And it’ll definitely help with the efficiency of the whole patient care process.

I think there’s one thing I’ll mention, based off your last question, how health care will change. I forgot about this, I think it’s important to mention, I think decisions around healthcare are going to become more data-driven. Part of this is just due to everyone now looking at the data around the pandemic itself and what that means for everyone’s lives. But I think too, as healthcare systems become more data-driven, they’re going to need to make decisions. And now that they’re more sensitive around costs, they’re going to be making decisions more around data, not only with the outcomes of certain products, but also how can that help the hospital system save money. And for us, it’s definitely a data-driven company, we’ve always put forth a big effort in having data around our products. I think that’s an area where at least our company is positioned well, moving forward, as hospitals and surgeons tend to look more at the data.

The Patient Care Continuum

Rudy: So what were they based on before, if not the data?

Kathryn: I think relationships and I think they have definitely always been sensitive to costs. You know, hospital systems are always looking around how to reduce costs. But you know, now it’ll be driven by, How can we reduce costs, maybe not in a specific procedure, but over the lifetime of the entire patient care continuum?

Rudy: I see what you mean. So especially as we move more towards a value-based care model, where exactly are you are going to measure, okay, this patient comes back  – how many times did this patient come back? Why is this patient getting better? And maybe your compensation will be tied to that. So as you lookout, and you pull out your crystal ball, and you look out over the next year or two…when it’s a little hard to predict the next day or two, but let’s look at the next year or two. What are some things in terms of marketing and healthcare and your product? What are some of the things you’re excited about? And what are some things that you think as you’re looking at the horizon you’re concerned about?

Shift From In-Person Sales

Kathryn: Honestly, I’m excited to see that there is the shift, this potential shift in marketing around medical device products, from in person to more online platforms. Seeing that change and seeing surgeons’ response to doing a webinar or doing more of these virtual tours, trainings or meetings. It’s a new avenue to create fresh content to deliver to surgeons versus just always doing things in-person. And it can allow us to get creative with our marketing efforts.

On the flip side, I think being able to have this opportunity to do more online marketing is nice. I worry, long term the impact if we’re not able to at least return to some in-person, some interfacing in meetings or dinners or whatever that may be, do you lose that relationship with the customers on some level? You know, it does help to have those personal relationships. And so, to me, it’s like, when can we return to that again, and just thinking broadly, as you alluded to, it’s just the uncertainty of the next couple of years. Will we see a spike again, with the pandemic a few months down the road, once people have started getting back to business? It definitely will make it challenging to plan long term for marketing activities. From a product development standpoint, how would we time product launches? How will we try to continue to expand our own company presence, not knowing if we’re going to see the past couple of months happen again?

Rudy: Yeah. Just curious, do you find that younger physicians are more open to the digital online relationship, as opposed to the older physicians who maybe want to go out to dinner more? Or is that just me stereotyping?

Kathryn: You know, you would think so, definitely younger physicians are more adept to it. So for example, I mentioned the Cluster app we use. I think younger surgeons are more readily open to adopting that. But from a webinar standpoint, and some of this other virtual learning, I would say pretty much across the board, at least with the surgeons we work with, they seem to be open to it.

Rudy: I guess that makes sense. They’re always learning anyway.

Kathryn: Exactly. You know, understanding the technology itself, the platform, there might be a little bit of a learning curve there. Yeah. But being open to it in general, I think I don’t think it matters.


Rudy: Kathryn, thanks so much for joining us. This has been a wonderful conversation. I really, really enjoyed it.

Kathryn: Yeah. Thank you, Rudy. I appreciate being on here and thanks for considering me.

Rudy: Hey, that music means that that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. To learn more about MedShape, visit and to reach out to Kathyrn, look for her on LinkedIn. For show notes and our previous 38 episodes, visit Thanks to Susan Cooper for producing the show. And thanks to you for listening. And remember, if the current state of marketing has got you confused, don’t worry. It’ll all change. See ya.

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