The latest health care marketing tool: QR codes

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By — Posted Oct. 3, 2011.

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QR codes, the nearly ubiquitous black-and-white square boxes with maze-like lines, could be an effective way for physicians to market themselves and their groups, said practice consultants and marketing experts.

QR codes -- the QR stands for "quick response" -- are basically an upgraded version of the standard barcode. They are two-dimensional graphics that can store 14 types of data, such as Web links, text messages and phone numbers. When the QR codes are scanned by using any camera-enabled smartphone, the data embedded in them will be delivered to that person's mobile device.

Mary Pat Whaley, a consultant who runs, a practice management resource website, said she has seen use of the technology "explode" in health care.

Whaley said hospitals and practices are trying to be creative about how they put information in patients' hands.

Dozens of websites generate a QR code at no cost, and physicians can find one through a Google search on creating a QR code. The site will ask what types of data are to be sent; most limit it to a URL, a text message or a phone number.

The data are typed in, and the sites will generate a digital file of the QR code's image that can be placed on an advertisement, a business card, a brochure, social media pages, the practice's website, or anywhere else people will see it.

"Sometimes QR codes are called 'interactive print,' because it has a call to action," Whaley said.

Here are some ways QR codes are used:

Introducing physicians. Whaley said QR codes that are linked to videos of physicians introducing themselves are a great way for potential patients to learn more about the doctors. Leslie McAllister, corporate marketing director for the Nebraska Medical Center, which uses QR codes, said it's a great idea for physicians who perform special or rare procedures to contact their affiliated hospital's marketing team to look for opportunities to make a video.

Online appointments. Athens (Ga.) Regional Health Services started using QR codes in ads this year. The codes take women to an online appointment center to schedule mammograms. The QR codes are featured in newspaper and magazine ads, as well as postcards. The system says the QR code offers a quick and convenient way to remind women they need the test, then lets them take immediate action.

Facility tours. One of the many ways the Nebraska Medical Center is using QR codes is to promote certain services its hospitals offer. One example is maternity services. The health system places QR codes in targeted ads that send users to a link with tours of the medical center's birthing rooms.

Patient testimonials. Poudre Valley Health System in Fort Collins, Colo., puts QR codes in all of its labor and delivery rooms. These codes take patients to the system's labor and delivery Facebook page, where they can share their stories. The hospital also promotes YouTube patient testimonials by placing QR codes in its newsletters that link users to the videos.

Patient education. A QR code is an easy way to direct patients to specific online resources to which physicians want to direct their patients. "If they know the patients have mobile phones, [physicians] might be able to take them to a QR code that might give them tips or things to do," McAllister said.

Health care marketing professionals suggest that uses for QR codes should be creative. They are meant to provide users with unique or special content. Whaley said practices probably do not want to simply link to their website's home page from the QR code. For one thing, chances are the website is not mobile-enabled, so it won't display well on a mobile phone.

And, she said, "big whoop -- you took me to your website." Patients are looking for information that is more specific to their needs, she added.

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