Get more bang for your buck by adopting technological advances

Web pages, e-learning, telehealth offer new ways to improve bottom line

Home health agencies still provide personalized care for patients in their homes, just as they always have, but technological advances have improved the way that agencies manage and documents that care. Point-of-care computers, cell phones, automated billing systems, and electronic medical records are all technology-related advances that have improved efficiency and productivity for home health agencies.

While home health managers are upgrading their technological capability to offer telemedicine services and make it easier to collect and manage the increasing amount of information needed for each patient, there is less attention paid to the use of electronic marketing activities and Internet-based staff education, according to experts interviewed by Hospital Home Health.

Even with the number of home health agencies that are increasing their use of technology to support staff activities, the home health industry is behind the curve compared to the way other industries and other areas of health care use technology to promote home health services and reach referral sources, says Michael Ferris, partner, Home Care Marketing Resource Group, a Chapel Hill, NC-based consulting firm. "At this time, the typical home health patient is not computer-savvy and does not use the Internet to find an agency; but as we see more adult children who are computer-savvy take a greater role in finding care for their parents, home health agencies are finding that electronic promotion is one way to get a lot of bang for their buck."

The most obvious first step in marketing your agency electronically is development of a web site. If you are a hospital-owned agency and your web page is part of the hospital's overall web site, check it out carefully, suggests Ferris. "The most important part of marketing on the Internet is to make your web page easy to find," he explains. Unfortunately, for most home care agencies that are included on their hospital's web site, it is not easy to find the home care page, he says.

One way to see how accessible your information is to the public is to pretend you are not familiar with the web site and look for your home health page, suggests Ferris. You also can ask a neighbor or friend who is not familiar with the web site to find information on the home health agency. "If you discover that your page cannot be easily found, talk to the hospital's webmaster to see what changes can be made," he suggests.

"You can also find out if the agency can set up its own web site to make information more accessible," he adds.

Market web site

Once you set up a web site, or make your page easier to find on the hospital's site, be sure to include the web address in all marketing materials, says Ferris. "You want to use your web site to gather information as well as give information," he says. "A good web page starts a conversation with the consumer." Offer consumers a chance to request information about your agency and offer something free that you can mail or e-mail to the consumer, he says. That offering could be a list of tips for selecting the best home health agency, he suggests.

"Collect names, addresses, and e-mails, but include a disclaimer that this information will not be sold or used by any other organization," Ferris recommends. This information can be used to build a list of names to which you can send newsletters, tips for home health patients, or any other useful information that will keep the person connected to your agency, he explains.

To make your web site most effective, keep it simple, emphasizes Ferris. "People usually try to do too much," he says. "Be sure you focus on the message you want to communicate and don't cram too much extra information onto the site." To establish your credibility, include mentions of any awards, statistics that demonstrate good outcomes and high-quality care, and comments from patient satisfaction surveys, Ferris suggests.

If you offer a specialized program that focuses on care for certain conditions, or if you offer special services such as telemedicine, be sure to describe them in your web site, he says. Because all home health agencies offer the same basic care, don't describe those services in detail, but spend time on the things that differentiate your agency, Ferris adds.

Not only does the Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest in Mountlake Terrace, WA, offer telemedicine as part of their services, but it also is an important part of their marketing effort, says Patricia Mulhern, RN, MN, vice president of patient services for the agency. "We are the only agency in our area that uses a telemedicine system that measures a wide range of vital signs on a daily basis; so this is a service that differentiates us from others," she says.

While telemedicine is included as part of the description of services on their web site, Mulhern points out that most of her marketing of the telemedicine service is directed at referral sources such as physicians and payers.

Cut costs with e-learning

Another area that more home health agencies are beginning to use is web-based staff education, says Debbie Scholl, RNC, BSN, MSN, managing director of CHEX, the e-learning division of The Corridor Group, an Overland Park, KS-based consulting firm. "Home health managers are constantly challenged to find ways to cut costs without compromising quality and that is hard when costs such as gasoline and salaries are going up at the same time staff sizes are decreasing," she points out. There is a limit to the ways you can cut costs in many areas, Scholl adds.

Because staff education is an integral part of any agencies' overhead costs, web-based learning for some required courses offers agency managers a way to meet training requirements without using staff educators to teach mandatory, basic courses, explains Scholl. "E-learning programs free up your staff educator to focus on specific needs of the agency and to spend more time with staff members who may need one-on-one training," she says.

Web-based programs also give employees the flexibility to take the required courses without having to come into the office at a specific time, which might disrupt their visit schedules, points out Scholl. The flexibility of the time and place at which employees can take the test is a great benefit to employees and is one way management can demonstrate that the agency is sensitive to employee needs, she says.

"Not only is this type of program great for recruitment and retention of employees now, but it positions the agency to meet the needs of future employees," Scholl says. "Younger employees and staff members we hire in the future will demand the flexibility that this technology offers."

Sources

For more information about the use of technology in marketing or staff education, contact:

  • Michael Ferris, Partner, Home Care Marketing Solutions. Phone: (919) 933-6026. E-mail: mike@hcmarketingsolutions.com.
  • Patricia Mulhern, RN, MN, Vice President, Patient Services, Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest, 6100 219th St. S.W., Suite 400, Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043-2222. Phone: (425) 744-2497. Fax: (425) 778-2406. E-mail: pmulhern@vnsnw.com.
  • Debbie Scholl, RNC, BSN, MSM, Managing Director of CHEX, The Corridor Group, 6405 Metcalf, Suite 108, Overland Park, KS 66202. Phone: (913) 362-0600, ext. 111. Fax: (913) 362-5378. E-mail: dscholl@corridorgroup.com.