People mingled and nibbled on cubed cheese, fresh strawberries and spinach puffs.
A catering crew in white dress shirts and black vests stood ready to replenish the hors d'oeuvres.
It looked like a cocktail reception, but the only drink flowing was bottled water, and the conversations focused on babies, epidurals and due dates.
Alegent Health Clinic's free “Best Beginnings Baby Event” last month in Omaha drew nearly 300 prospective moms and dads who chatted with the nine obstetricians standing at waist-high tables draped in blue and pink linens.
Doctors are increasingly turning up at similar “shop for a doc” events as well as in website videos, at farmers markets and other places. Doctors from Alegent Health Clinic will meet prospective patients at Storm Chasers baseball games.
Such efforts in the region and across the nation are aimed at personalizing doctors, attracting patients and boosting business in a competitive health care market. Clinics also say a goal is to help patients get to know doctors better before picking one, increasing the chances of a good match.
“It's to make physicians more than just a name in the yellow pages,” said Tess Niehaus, president of an American Hospital Association marketing group.
Physicians say a good doctor-patient fit produces benefits. The patients are more comfortable confiding in their doctors about health problems, for example, and are more likely to make appointments for preventive care.
At meet-and-greet events, patients often home in on specific questions: Will you respond to email questions? What are the chances that one of your partners will end up delivering my baby? What's your philosophy on prescribing antibiotics?
Patients also want to get a feel for the physician's personality, said Dr. Stephen Lanspa, president of Creighton Medical Associates, which sends physicians to meet prospective patients at the farmers market in downtown Omaha.
Does the doctor crack a joke, or is he businesslike? Does she ask about your kids or just your health? Does he touch your arm while chatting or keep his arms folded?
“There is a big variety in style and bedside manner,” said Dr. Karen Carlson of the Olson Center for Women's Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Patients shopping for a doctor are looking for someone who shares their philosophy about medical care and someone they can bond with, said Traci McBee, a spokeswoman for Mercy Clinics in Des Moines.
At a Mercy Clinics' “meet the doctors” event last fall, one couple with twins chose a pediatrician partly because the doctor has twins.
Meet-and-greets often feature obstetricians. Some include pediatricians, family practice doctors and plastic surgeons.
Clinics are finding other ways to personalize doctors, even if they don't meet patients in person.
St. Luke's Health System in Sioux City, Iowa, hands out notepads with photos of doctors and personal information. One physician mentions that she plays the organ at church, and another says he spent six years in the Air Force working on B-52s.
Methodist Health System and Alegent Health in Omaha and BryanLGH Physician Network in Lincoln are among those offering short video clips in which doctors talk about their specialties, why they became physicians and other details.
So, does it help to watch a three-minute video clip or have a 10-minute chat before picking a doctor?
Any information about a doctor is useful, said Steve Findlay, a health policy analyst for the organization that publishes Consumer Reports.
But Findlay, of Washington, D.C.-based Consumers Union, said patients shouldn't rely on just a meet-and-greet event or similar encounter. Prospective patients should also learn about a doctor's credentials and training and the physician's ratings by other patients.
But reliable, detailed information on the quality of individual doctors, such as the results of patient treatment, isn't available. The federal government is required to provide such information under the new health care law, but it won't be ready for several more years.
Tony and Melissa Dorr of Omaha said they realize that information on doctors is limited, so they attended the Alegent event at Lakeside Hospital.
He's 37, and she's 32. The couple plan to start a family soon and talked with three obstetricians at the event. They clicked with Dr. Jennifer Hill.
Melissa doesn't want epidural anesthesia during delivery because she believes in avoiding medications when possible. The couple said Hill was fine with that.
Avid runners, the Dorrs also learned that Hill completed a half-marathon last fall. That scored more points for them — Melissa said Hill can give her advice on how far into her pregnancy she can run.
Melissa liked the doctor enough that she scheduled an initial appointment. The appointment went well.
“We were on the same page in every area,” said Tony.
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