Company offers computer access to hospital patients

Rentals have potential of decreasing hospital bill

Hospital stays may no longer seem as confining if a Jackson, MS, company has its way.

MediNet Rentals is offering inpatients the ability to access the Internet, read and send e-mail messages, view DVD movies, and play games in a filtered Web environment, all at T1 speeds, wirelessly.

Not only will the system offer entertainment, there is the potential to link it to the hospital’s intranet so caregivers can input information at the bedside. And associations with corporate sponsors and advertisers may reduce the daily cost of renting the computer, as well as potentially reduce a patient’s hospital bill.

MediNet Rentals rolled out its plan in February at Baptist Health Systems in Jackson. Right away, the idea of having a computer in the room was a hit with the patients in the health system’s acute care hospital. "Patients have told their nurses and their physicians [how much they like the system]. We’ve even gotten e-mails," says Rick Caldwell, Baptist’s vice president and CIO.

Screening determines who’s interested

Patients learn about the computer rentals at the time of admission. "We screen patients to see if we think they are a candidate for the computer," says Georgia Rice, Baptist’s admissions team leader. "If they are, we tell them what the computer can do."

A computer is also in the waiting room, offering details about the rentals. MediNet distributes admissions flyers with information about the service. The computer in the waiting room "pretty much sells the rentals," Rice says.

If a patient is interested, he or she fills out a demographic sheet along with the admissions paperwork, listing hobbies and preferences. "It’s customized for the patient," Rice says.

Admissions then calls a MediNet technician, who goes to the patient’s room and teaches the patient how to use the computer, which is mounted on an over-the-bed table and rolls from room to room. The patient is assigned an Internet address and is given a headset, mouse pad, and diskette.

The computer is easy to use, especially for older people, Rice says. The company took away tool bars that some users might find confusing and replaced them with large icons that have basic instructions, such as "Click here to play a game," or "Click here to go to the Internet."

MediNet’s standard rate for the daily computer rental is $19.95. The company technicians take payment by credit card or check. "Admissions is not involved in money collection," Rice says.

Even family members enjoy access

Many types of patients are interested in renting the computer, Caldwell says. "It’s across the board, and it’s not just the patient. It’s the family member as well. A lot of times, the family member is the primary user.

Parents are especially interested in the computer, Rice says. "They are happy to give the children something to do." Some family members also welcome the ability to keep in touch with their workplaces, without having to tie up hospital telephone lines.

Caldwell says the hospital plans to eventually have a computer in each patient room. "Then we would make the computers available just like we do with televisions now. After patients get to their room, someone would come by and let them know [the service] was available."

Reducing costs through sponsorships

Although some patients may find the daily computer rental rate inexpensive already, Bill Huff, president and founder of MediNet, wants to reduce costs further through corporate sponsorships and advertisements. Eventually, such sponsorships might help reduce a patient’s hospital bill, he says.

Corporate sponsorships will work by allowing patients to act as their own commissioned sales agents:

- Patients receive the names of the corporate sponsors from admissions, or they can access a list from their rented computer.

- If a patient decides to do business with a corporate sponsor, a percentage of that sale is set aside in a separate account for that particular patient.

For example, a patient might decide to switch his or her long-distance service to corporate sponsor MCI. MCI, which would have paid a sales agent $500 for that consumer, instead places that money into the account. The account is administered through an outside CPA firm and is not handled by MediNet.

- Those funds are then used to offset the cost of the computer rental.

- If money is left over, it can be used against the patient’s hospital bill.

"By using the corporate sponsorship in that way, we are able to increase our penetration in hospitals that maybe would not ordinarily want or be interested in providing patients with computers," Huff says. MediNet is still developing the corporate sponsor list.

Consumers can prepare for a hospital stay by using corporate sponsors beforehand, Huff says. "We offer a MediNet number to people who would like to take advantage of building this fund for themselves in case they are ever hospitalized."

Corporate sponsors pay nothing if they are not selected by the patients. Advertisers to MediNet Web pages, however, do pay fees. MediNet offers 10 slots on each wing’s home page to advertisers that offer products to the floor’s type of patients, such as maternity patients.

Preapproved advertisers

"We require that those particular advertisers already be doing business in the hospital with that product," Huff explains. "We won’t be bringing products into the hospital that it doesn’t approve of already." The list will appear on the patient’s interface to the computer.

If MediNet is able to fill the advertiser slots, the cost of renting the computer each day will be nominal. "We would like to get the daily rate down to $5 or lower," Huff says.

Huff also sees the potential for caregivers to use the MediNet computers as a tool to improve patient care.

"Nurses can eliminate redundant or duplicate charting by having a computer in the room set up to access the hospital’s intranet through a password-protected link," he explains. Physicians also can e-mail patients or show them information on the Web that relates to their care.

At this early stage, Caldwell doesn’t know of any Baptist physicians that have used the computers to show patients health care Web sites. The topic has been discussed, however. "We were talking about that with one of our internal medicine physicians. He thought it was a great idea."

Caldwell says Baptist has just scratched the surface with the MediNet computers. "The potential is incredible."