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Journal of the Academy of Hospital Administration

Hospital and Cyberspace

Author(s): N.K. Manchanda*, SD Behera**

Vol. 13, No. 2 (2001-07 - 2001-12)

Background

The accelerated growth of the cyberspace has added new dimensions to IT. This virtual space, which flows inside and outside of all computers connected to each other, is a limitless world with no frontiers and has immense potentialities in terms of its multidisciplinary utility.

It is in light of the above that this paper proposes to highlight the possible ways of exploiting the cyberspace by hospitals.

Introduction

The Internet is a global network of computer networks and exists in the cyberspace. Besides several other applications, it also is a powerful, inexpensive and fast medium of communication. Primarily the Internet enables computers hooked on to it the following utilities:

a) Information dissemination. The Internet serves as a communication channel for those dealing with product marketing, dissemination of knowledge, to corporate communication.

b) Commerce. The hottest emerging market place is he Internet where products can be advertised, ordered and business transacted without the need to visit a market in the true sense.

c) Entertainment. Unlimited access to computer games and presentations in the audio and visual formats make the Internet an exciting place.

d) Social communications. E-mail, chat, bulletin boards are means of instantaneous communication possible on the Internet and are popular formats of social communication.

The application of the Internet, which is drawing the most attention, is the World Wide Web (www), commonly referred to as the Web. The Web is a series of servers that are interconnected through hypertext. Hypertext is a method of presenting information in which highlighted text when selected displays more information. These hypertext are called hyperlinks and allow users to navigate with the help of a browser from one document or Web site to another which may be located on different servers. The homepage on the Web is the index page of any organization or information source and is its face on the Web.

The Internet can be exploited by hospitals in dissemination of information as part of promotion activity or marketing of the hospital, interaction with the community and in delivery of health care (Telemedicine). Some basic aspects of these are discussed here.

Cyber marketing

The Web is fast becoming a channel for adding value to the services that are being offered to the customer. The unique powers of the Web create a market place where users and the product can be brought together, bridging time and space effortlessly. By moving the communication regarding the product on to the Web is a surefire way to hold the customers attention as the Web is a clutter-free medium and the customer can experience only one piece of communication at a time.

The Hospital Homepage

The hospital homepage is the permanent face of the hospital in the cyberspace that acts as an entry to the cyber mart where the clients are millions of people around the globe who are hooked on to the Internet. The homepage is the graphical presentation on the monitor about the hospital and can be made interactive between the Web surfer and the hospital.

The simplest form of advertising the homepage on the Web is by putting up strip-ads, which are small panels of attention attracting hypertext visuals, on other popular Web sites.

The real challenge lies in designing the homepage, which while essentially being an ad, makes Web surfers return to it. Though the technicalities of designing the homepage will be the responsibility of Web professionals, the same will of course have to based on the specific requirement of the user hospital. However, a well-designed homepage can provide the following services to a hospital:

a) Increase the visibility on the Web. By appropriate search engine placement, the homepage or web site of a hospital can be fine-tuned to rank highly on a search result. Major search engines like Excite, Alta Vista, InfoSeek, Webcrawler, Lycos, MSN, Planet Search and What-U-Seek, would be ideal for registering the site. Registering on Indian portals would facilitate easy log-in by Indian web surfers who are more likely to avail the services of an Indian Hospital. By increasing the traffic to the site, the aim which may be imparting health care education or to increase referrals and gain market share, become more easily attainable.

b) Improve Quality of Care. With an Intranet system, a private Internet of the hospital can be set up. Communication between facilities, groups, members, or employees are facilitated which enables increase in quality of care. Such a system would allow the following:

  1. A physician on-call at home can more accurately address a patient's needs when the physician can access the patient's medical records from any personal computer.
  2. Medical records are more accurately transcribed because the physician can access the record, make the edits on his/her computer, and post it for final revisions.

c) Community building. Community building which is an important aspect of building up the clientele begins with availability of healthcare information and incorporates Web-based forum rooms. Web based forum rooms (which can be of any number) are the best way to offer simultaneous discussions on any number of healthcare related topics and there by build a community because:

  1. Discussions are threaded for each individual's interest;
  2. Patients enter a forum of their interest (for example, chronic arthritis, pain) and register with their e-mail address;
  3. Give patients a place where they can discuss their health care issues or concerns with other patients (a virtual support group); or
  4. Establish permanent rooms for people with chronic conditions where they can discuss among themselves the latest health care information for their condition.
  5. When the visitors enter the forum rooms on the Web site, they will leave their e-mail addresses. With that, information can be sent about subjects which they are interested in and by this a community can be built up that will keep coming back without any maintenance, because e-mails can be so easily sent.

(d) Enhance Patient Satisfaction. With community building, patient populations can be captured and retained by way of providing topic specific healthcare information that they are interested in receiving. The healthcare information should be informative and help patients have control over and manage their health care decisions. Providing quality health care information is to benefit of the hospital because it empowers individuals to make their own informative decisions; and the hospital can make use of that information by connecting it to their physicians and services. Such information on the Web will ensure that patients continue to visit the homepage for healthcare services and thereby generate further referrals. With an Intranet, you can make your site the one-stop resource for the hospitals patients. Further to maintain patient interest personalized homepage can be offered in the web page that highlight their interest. They:

  1. Choose the Forum Rooms of their Interests. A wealth of forum rooms about disease specific topics can be created, and the patients will indicate their interest (for example, asthma and men's health) as and when they log on to the site. When they log on, they will see only the information about asthma and men's health but can also easily access the mass of other resources that are available on the site.
  2. Make a buddy list. They can be notified when other people who have subscribed to the asthma room are logged on;
  3. Request an appointment. They can fill in the appointment request form and e-mail it to the appropriate department. The appointment date can then be sent by email back to the patient.
  4. Enter a chat room or post a message on the bulletin board.

(Why should a user have to go anywhere else? Over 60% of the over 50 million people on the Internet are searching for health care information. The user starts at your site because you have up-to-date health care information. A patient remains on your site because you have created a community. A community of patients will come to you and count on you for quality health care. Your referrals will increase as patients who feel part of a community tell their friends about you and send e-mails with @yourorganization.com on them. You emphasize that you give individualized patient care by giving them their own personalized Web site.)

e) Increase Operational Efficiency. Job seekers of the 2000's are using the Internet to market themselves. Internet World estimates that the number of resumes posted online has increased from 1,00,000 in 1995 to 2.5 million in 1998. When employment opportunities are posted on the hospital Web site, operational efficiencies are improved because of the following:

  1. Saving of Staff time. Instead of faxing the job descriptions and responding to frequently asked questions the hospital staff can just ask the candidate to log onto the site and obtain all the necessary information; and
  2. The open positions receive greater exposure and will be filled quickly by a larger pool of qualified candidates because on-line job seekers are well read, business savvy, and more financially secure (Forrester Research as reported in Web's Best Job Sites).The Web site would require constant updating. This should be possible without the requirement to employ or hire specialized staff.

In the corporate sector the increased volume of clientele on the Web will reflect positively on the revenues, as there will be proportionately increased visits to the hospital. Further online consultations can be charged by adopting e-commerce thereby further increasing the revenue

Barriers to Cyber Marketing of Hospitals

Though the advantages of having a homepage or Web site by a hospital have been amply discussed, there are obvious barriers in this country due to our socialistic setup and third world economy.

(a) Limited Access Only to Certain Segment of Society. Despite the increasing number of web surfers, it is only a selected segment of the society, the upper middle class, urban population which is indulging in this activity. Thus a presence on the Web may not reach out to the others who would be the majority.

(b) Technology Intensive. Being a technology intensive service, Internet is not yet available in many towns. At places where it is available the service is hampered by problems in connectivity.

(c) Expensive. Cost of surfing on the Web is expensive in our country and prohibits time spent on browsing.

Conclusion

The cyberspace would be the site for all forms of transactions in the future and will attract a large number of visitors. To enable hospitals to attract these Web visitors, Web presence in the form of a Web page is essential. The homepage should be so designed that it should build up a loyal community following thereby increasing referrals. Barriers that now exist against the marketing of hospitals on the web are soon to be overcome due to advancement of technology and reduction of its cost.

* PMO, HQ Western Air Command
** Resident Administrator, Dept. of Hospital Admn. AIIMS, New Delhi.

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