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Hospitals try new approach to patient-specific marketing

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By — Posted July 19, 2010.

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Any member of a customer-loyalty program at a grocery store chain has likely noticed that, at the end of a transaction, the register spits out coupons for products he or she uses routinely. That's not a coincidence.

The ads are generated by what's called a customer relationship management system. That same technology is making its way into the health care industry so hospitals can market to patients and physicians the same way supermarkets do -- by sending information they think a customer needs or wants based on their history.

"It's about relationships and management. And at the end of the day, relationships are built with people through dialogue," said Anil Swami, an executive partner with the global management consulting firm Accenture, which helps clients implement customer relation management strategies and systems. "Our experience has been that the technology is the enabler, and the people deliver."

The use of CRM software by the health industry is aided by the increasing automation of data ranging from physician referrals to electronic medical records. The software uses that information to create targeted mailing campaigns, phone banks and even personalized Web content, analogous to when online marketplace Amazon.com makes suggestions for customers based on a user's past purchases and searches.

Many hospitals have long used databases to track information on physicians. Experts say hospitals and health systems have used physician data, such as specialty information, to build closer relationships or target individual doctors for recruiting.

The biggest activity in CRM, however, will be geared toward patients.

Now that paper charts are being replaced by EMRs in hospitals and large health systems, health care marketers have a ripe opportunity to reach patients. EMRs and all the electronic systems they interoperate with significantly have increased the amount of data available, and make that data easier to access.

Some hospitals have created Web-based portals that give patients access to their own health information. Other portals allow physicians to garner the patient information they deem most relevant. To some extent, all involve CRM technology.

Message personalization

Advancements in CRM technology have made it possible for organizations in almost any sector to generate automatic messages to customers either via e-mail or by customizing website content specific to each person. Experts say the health industry poses challenges that marketers don't find in other business sectors, especially when the targeted group is patients.

The biggest challenge is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA regulations do allow, with restrictions, the use of patient data for marketing. But that use still must maintain patient trust.

Josh Sweeney, CEO of ALT-Invest, a CRM consulting firm based in Atlanta, said how a health care organization carries out a CRM-based marketing campaign is key, since patients might find it odd -- or even creepy -- to receive materials based on information they might want to keep private. That's much different from getting a coupon for your favorite cereal.

Sweeney said it is crucial for hospitals to keep their patients' trust, or they will lose them. "Most people have a certain amount of leeway that they give for people to make mistakes in general environments, but not with their personal health care knowledge. They don't allow many mistakes in that area, if any," he said.

Sweeney said most CRM activity in health organizations have an opt-in mechanism. He said it's a good idea, depending on the type of campaign, to explain to patients exactly what they are opting in to receive.

CPM Marketing Group, a Madison, Wis.-based marketing company specializing in CRM technology, has created an automated mechanism that generates website ads and content geared specifically for a visitor. If a patient is at risk for heart disease, for example, he or she might find a banner ad at the top of the page for a heart risk assessment.

Edward Hospital & Health Services in Naperville, Ill., was the first hospital to launch CPM's automated system, which the company calls iCRM. Brian Davis, vice president of marketing for Edward, said the system essentially works like a patient portal. Patients are sent mailers encouraging them to sign up for a personalized URL for the Edward website.

Once a patient signs on, every time that patient returns to the website, they automatically arrive at their personalized URL, which means after the main web address, there would be a "/JaneDoe." Similar to the way Amazon makes purchasing suggestions, the system generates content and ads based on the data the hospital has regarding that person's medical history.

Davis said the system "is a way for us to give patients information in a more relevant and meaningful way."

The Edward system includes a medical group and involves doctors in the iCRM project. The marketing team talks with physicians about programs they want to promote or content they want to include when developing the targeted website marketing.

James Lengemann, MD, an internist with the Edward Medical Group, said he is excited about the potential the iCRM system has in helping him facilitate dialogue with patients outside of the exam room.

"Anything we can do to stay in touch with our patients and keep them informed is certainly positive," Dr. Lengemann added. "Tailored patient education and reminders about screenings are exciting tools that help keep health care top-of-mind and give us the chance to identify serious or life-threatening conditions."

Knowing what dialogue patients want or need is important in maintaining relationships, Swami said.

Sometimes health care systems forget that patients also are customers, he added. They are customers before they are patients, and after they are patients, they are customers again. Like any other business, health care systems must find new ways to connect with customers to continue relationships with them.

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