‘Virtual gathering place’ is hospital patient pleaser

‘CarePages’ result of creator’s experience

Several hundred hospitals throughout the country are now giving patients and their families the opportunity to set up “CarePages” that allow them to send updates on the patient’s condition over the Internet and receive messages in return. Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago began the program in March, and it has been “a really nice customer service offer,” notes Gillian Cappiello, senior director of access service and chief privacy officer. “It provides a virtual gathering place, a secure web page that is managed by the patient or a family member or friend.

“The thing people seem to respond to,” she adds, “is that in a difficult situation, they don’t have to pick up the phone and call everybody; even if it’s a happy occasion, such as the birth of a child, they don’t want to be gone for two hours making calls. We get a lot of thank-yous for the opportunity to stay in touch when people are far away.”

From the perspective of those receiving the updates, Cappiello points out, “it’s nice, in times of turmoil, to see how the patient and family are doing without having to ask 50 questions.”

The creation of “baby pages” is a common use of the service at Swedish Covenant, she notes, as with the recent birth of a child whose family sent information on the new arrival to grandparents in England. “[Families] can post photos or write that Uncle Joe had surgery today and is doing fine,” she notes. In long-term care scenarios, sometimes it’s the patients sending the messages. “[The communications] are exempt from [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act} regulations because it is not the hospital staff doing it.”

Hospitals purchase the service from a Chicago-based company called TLContact, and provide it at no cost to patients and their family and friends, Cappiello says. The cost — based on number of admissions — is directly proportionate to the size of the facility.

The CarePages are branded for each hospital, and can be customized to a great extent to include links to the facility’s web site, a helpful tips section, or a place to say thank you to the housekeeping staff, she notes.

The Swedish Covenant CarePages, for example, feature a welcome from the hospital’s CEO, a way to help with fundraising efforts, and a survey, Cappiello says, asking about the patient’s experience with the CarePages and with the hospital, in general.

Included in the survey: “If our service made it easier to communicate your thoughts and feelings, please tell us why,” and “If the CarePages service had not been available, how would that have changed your experience?”

TLContact and the CarePages were created out of the personal experience of Eric Langshur, the company’s founder and chief executive officerHis son Matthew, now 7, had three open heart surgeries, the first when he was only a week old, Langshur says, and his brother-in-law created a web site to keep friends and family informed. “We would leave notes [on the site] about how we were doing and the surgeries he was undergoing,” he says. “In the summer of 1999, we were getting 2,000 unique hits a day. Quite frankly, it was one of those wonderful experiences you have in life. We realized this was the best use of the Internet.”

Langshur, an aerospace executive, says he and his wife, a pediatrician, were so enthusiastic about the idea of creating a similar experience for others that they quit their jobs and started the company. “We had a belief this was a service we had to make available,” he adds. “How many of us are presented with something we feel so passionate about in this world?”

While CarePages are available to anyone for free at www.carepages.com, Langshur says, the hospitals that buy the service get the benefits of branding and of building relationships with customers through the welcome pages, patient satisfaction surveys, and other customized features, such as links to their fundraising arms and to on-line gift shops. Faith-based hospitals, he notes, have links to prayer groups that patients can call on.

“The 50 people on average who visit each page become fiercely loyal about the care page and about the hospital providing the service,” Langshur says. “We use the loyalty and the reach and the incredible relationship to provide value.”

CarePages can be accessed at an Internet terminal in the hospital, at home or work, or on a laptop computer, he says. The page stays active as long as the family wants it, Langshur adds. “The average length of stay of our customers is four days, but the average duration of a care page is three months. Patients are still healing and convalescing after they get home from the hospital.”

The person who is managing the page can shut it down, he says, or after six months of inactivity, the company will send an e-mail asking if the family wants to leave the page up or take it down.

Swedish Covenant currently has three locations where customers can access CarePages, notes Cappiello, and is hoping to add one in the obstetrics area. “Those patients can use [the computer in] the medical library, but it’s only open certain hours.”

One of the issues her hospital is dealing with, she says, is that if people don’t have their distribution lists and e-mail addresses, they can’t access America Online or Hotmail to get them because the hospital has restricted Internet access. “We have to find places that don’t violate confidentiality,” Cappiello adds.

In view of the recent emphasis on patient safety, TLContact is pushing the opportunity to improve health literacy that the CarePages provide, Langshur says. “We are using the loyalty that the service engenders to deliver patient safety education.”

Visitors to the page might, for example, read about the importance of hand washing when it comes to preventing infection, he adds, or be cautioned not to visit the patient if they’re not feeling well, or to make sure caregivers wash their hands before entering the patient’s room. “Patient-safety theory is well advanced,” notes Langshur, “but there has been no program that has made the patient and the consumer a partner in prevention. We create teachable moments.”

(Editor’s note: Gillian Cappiello can be reached at gcappiel@schosp.org.)