A New Diagnosis for Health-care Marketing

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Receive a diagnosis without sitting in a doctor's office … pick up prescriptions from your mailbox … meet with your psychologist by flipping on your video phone …Welcome to the world of telehealth. Technological innovation combined with exploding consumer demand means the market is ripe for anything that provides better health care — faster, easier, cheaper. Government-supported and university telehealth and telemedicine programs are already underway. However, few corporations have cracked the consumer market, partly due to consumer skepticism and slow adoption by the medical industry. Tele-what? Telehealth is a broad term that refers to health-care information, medications, services, administrative support — anything health-related — that is provided electronically through the Internet, video conferencing, home-health monitors and other equipment. (E-health describes health services and information provided on the Internet.) Telemedicine refers to telecommunications equipment, including phones and home monitors, that deliver direct care between doctor and patient. (For more on telemedicine, see the April issue of The Edward Lowe Report.) Telehealth is expected to comprise 15% of the health-care market by 2010. Indeed, this industry — a community of researchers and developers, vendors, marketing firms, home-health agencies, nurses, doctors and the end users — doubled in just one year, moving from $6.8 billion in 1997 to more than $13 billion in 1998. And it's expected to grow another 40% in the next 10 years. Although telehealth may be an undisputed trend, it's hindered by consumer doubt and skepticism, says Stephen Malik, founder of Medfusion Inc., a $10 million company based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that provides online, interactive communication for physicians and their patients. (Patients can enter the system, create a detailed record, including medical history and symptoms for nonemergency conditions, and receive medical advice, treatment information and prescription authorization from their own physician.) Insurance providers have shown an interest in the virtual-office approach due to faster response from doctors and less downtime for employees, who don't have to leave their desks to go to a doctor's appointment. Yet physicians have been slow to adopt the technology, which means that few patients have seen it work. "Only 5% of the physicians have a Web presence at all," says Malik, who is also chairman of the board of Medical Web, a company he founded prior to Medfusion, which builds and manages Web sites for physicians. A lot of doctors have the perception that the Internet or telehealth approach will be slower and inefficient, he explains. Yet 90% of the patients who have used the interactive service to communicate with physicians said they received equal or better care, according to a poll conducted by Medfusion. That's the story with the entire industry, Malik says. Once consumers log on and get questions answered, buy prescriptions instead of waiting in line or gain access to specialists they normally couldn't reach, people become telehealth-care advocates. To offset the early negative perceptions and skepticism, Malik and other telehealth entrepreneurs have taken an old-fashioned approach to tackle this emerging industry: They go out and meet the buying public face-to-face. Telehealth marketing 101 Certainly, products that are both relevant and first in their industries will attract much interest on their own. However, companies must go where the market is to foster knowledge and product awareness. Here's how to get there:
  • Trade shows. Entrepreneurs and industry leaders often show up to scout products and displays — anything that will give them an edge. This is also the spot where telehealth professionals should demonstrate their products and allow people to work with the monitors and technology.
  • Seminars. Organize your own. Offer a catered lunch or evening hors d'oeuvres to a select group of guests within your target market. Give them a chance to get to know you and your product. Demonstrate how it works, what it does and how it will benefit them. Field questions. Don't put on the hard sell; simply show them what's cutting edge in the industry and build a relationship that will translate into sales.
  • National conventions. Find out when and where key groups meet, such as insurance providers, physicians or retirement-community leaders, and then get there. Some national conventions offer booth opportunities and a chance to demonstrate or discuss your product or service.
  • Content-heavy advertisements. A fancy graphic and quick tag line aren't likely to sell a product that no one has ever seen. But a photograph, along with a detailed description and statistics about your benefits become a valuable education tool. This also serves as a strong leave-behind piece.
  • Electronic demonstration. Malik uses a CD-ROM to demonstrate the Web-based services that Medfusion provides. Other firms use the Internet to illustrate and inform potential clients.
  • Beta test with potential customers. Buzz Peddicord, CEO of Milwaukee-based HomMed, a $15 million company that produces home health monitors, took his product directly to the people he created it for — doctors, nurses and patients — before the device was ready to be sold. Peddicord asked potential customers what they liked, what other functions the device should perform, what worked and what didn't. All of the talk and feedback was an effort to develop credibility among the physicians and to help develop a product that would reflect the doctors' and patients' needs. It worked. More than 128 units were sold their first year on the market, and Peddicord is busy researching his next device. Caution: People who have been reticent to try new technological approaches to health care probably won't change their minds immediately after seeing your product and methods. Remember to take it slow. Listen to potential customers' needs and identify which ones your product or service meets. Stay within their comfort zone; you're making an investment toward future sales or the addition of services.
  • Articles and expert columns. Public relations can go a long way toward boosting your company's credibility and image. Look for ways to serve as an industry expert. If someone is writing about telehealth, contact him or her about your business. Write expert articles or opinion pieces for local business journals. Use these columns to identify how health care is changing — and detail why and how that will benefit both doctors and patients.
  • Listservs and Internet forums. There are hundreds of telehealth listservs that can be found online. Investigate those best suited to your company, and respond consistently to questions, particularly those about equipment and innovative services. Include your Web site in your response so that listserv users can take a look at your products. Numerous Web sites also offer free resource listings and links to vendors. In addition, banner ads on telehealth Web sites may enhance public awareness for your product or service.
It's going to take some work to launch telehealth into the mainstream, but with a marketing approach that focuses first on education and awareness, this health-care trend will be sure to lead all others. Writer: Polly Campbell
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