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Better Communication while in Hospitals: A Tough Nut to Crack

Posted on May 21, 2007

Having a sister who was very ill growing up and who spent a lot of time at Mass General Hospital because of her illness and subsequent surgery (which cured here by the way) my family and I have been in the situation of having to communicate things to our extended family from the hospital many times.

For those that have been there you’ll know that this isn’t an easy thing to do. Up until recently cell phones weren’t allowed to be used in most hospitals so extended family members had a hard time calling in for updates. However, even with cell phones the family is stuck making and answering a bunch of phone calls when they should and want to be focusing on the family member in trouble.

I started thinking about a better way for families to communicate in these types of situations about two years ago but still have yet to wrap my mind around how such a fix would look business wise. I had tried to work towards a solution with the help of my friend Rick Smith while I was back in Boston.

We thought that, to start out, kiosks placed in hospitals might make the most sense. I know, I know… that’s soooo mid-1990s but here was the thought process.

Since hospitals don’t offer wifi anywhere other than the lobbies and don’t want it interfering with their equipment we’d need to patch an internet line into the hospital and route it to terminals. We’d also be able to set the terminals up for the complete novice with features like memory card slots for each type of card and a quick 1 step picture upload if you wanted to upload pictures for your family. The interface would be dead simple so everyone could easily use it.

The product would be a web page that has permissions (like flickr) and could be edited out of the hospital on a standard computer as well just like a blog. Again, UI would be deal simple and would only have core functionality in it. Family members could then get alerted to updates via e-mail, feeds, text messages, etc.

Of course then we thought families in crisis may not be the best way to break into the market. What would be? Babies. We could have these “New Life” terminals, or so we called them, in the newborn areas of the hospital where families would want to get pictures and such out ASAP. The sites could even be set up in advance of coming to the hospital and then modified via the kiosks. After the newborn market solidified we’d try to move the concept to other places in the hospital (ICU, Surgery, etc.).

Now, to the problems:

- Getting buy in from the hospitals is nearly impossible.
- Maintaining kiosks is labor intensive.
- Customer turnover is very high.
- How in the heck do you monetize this thing?

Getting buy in from hospitals will always be a hurdle but I think as more technology is allowed in hospitals those barriers will break down.

Maintaining kiosks could be farmed out to a group like Geek Squad or other local repair and help service firms via contract.

Customer turnover is a big one that isn’t easily remedied. Since this service is very events based users would only use it once in a long while and for very short times when they do. This behavior would be touch to monetize with ads and such since you can’t predict where the impressions would be from day to day. (The babies thing might work better if you could convince parents to keep it up over time with new pictures and other info.)

Monetization, as referenced above, would be tough from an ad model standpoint but not impossible. Other than an ad supported model you could add the cost into hospital bills for those that want it. Since the value add for the hospital is that you are giving them a free service for their patients so you’d probably need to get patients or their families to pay for the service and, in crazy times, they probably won’t since they have too many things on their mind.

What got me thinking about this whole idea again was a discussion that I had with my girlfriend’s brother and his wife this weekend while in D.C. They had a similar idea in the elderly care space and I brought up all the same issues with it and we then tried to think of more creative solutions.

It is a frustrating situation since it is a large problem but when trying to solve it you run into so many issues. Perhaps a twitter-like service is useful. Even in that case you run into the issue that, in a time of tragedy, you may not be able to set up a system. You would really need to convince folks to have something set up in advance even though they may never need it. It’s like insurance in that sense but when they aren’t using it how are you making money?

Convincing the users to pay would be tough since the value isn’t immediately noticed until you have been in the situation before (i.e. my mom bought a beeper way back just in case my sister had issues but had she not been though it before she wouldn’t have purchased the beeper).

Running ads would be equally hard due to the long periods of inactivity on the sites created although once you had a big enough user base you would probably have a decent amount of inventory at any given time. Forecasting that would be hard though and you’d probably be considered “low rent” space by advertisers since people aren’t necessarily in buying moods. On the baby side though ads for baby related products would be a perfect fit and people would be in the mood to buy them. That still doesn’t solve the core issue of alerting family members to a persons condition on the ICU/surgery side of things though.

I’d love to hear all of your thoughts on this. It seems like something should be done to remove friction here but it seems like most solutions only add friction or come up against tough walls like hospital regulations.

Here’s one of my recent ideas on this (i.e. came up while I was writing this post): Perhaps you could create communties around current sufferers of certain illnesses or people having the same surgeries that would allow them and their family members to learn more and communicate with others in the same position.

In this case you could have links on the personal sites that would send people to more info about the condition/surgery and to forums that others in the same condition would be part of. That would cause more stickiness which would help with an ad related model. It would also drive people to the service who may be searching for info on certain illnesses or surgeries. Of course now you are faced with some content aggregation issues which leads me to wonder if this whole thing should be another piece of business for WebMD designed to drive more pageviews through their site.


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6 Comments so far
  1. Rick Klau May 21, 2007 8:46 pm

    Sounds similar to CarePages ( “CarePages are free, personal, private Web pages that help family and friends communicate when someone is facing illness.”

    Not exactly what you describe, but still in the ballpark. And, as you note, newborns are an obvious entree into the market. The first CarePage I got invited to was when a friend had twins (preemies)… they updated their status every couple days, people could leave comments, they posted pictures, etc.

  2. Eric Olson May 21, 2007 10:02 pm

    Interesting. I missed those guys for some reason. Also interesting is that they were bought up by Revolution Health which is gunning for WebMD’s throne. As I said it makes sense for a business like that to tie in with a big content guy like Revolution or WebMD. There you have it. Apparently I am late to the dance this time. :-)

  3. Jake P May 22, 2007 9:56 am

    When my buddy was in the hospital for months, his family used caringbridge.

    It was awesome. They posted photos and updates almost daily. There was a way to connect with the family and you could “donate to Caringbridge” and surprisingly lots of people did!

  4. Whitney Hoffman May 23, 2007 6:46 am

    Hey Eric-

    Looking at this again (sent you an email as well)I think getting a trial program at a big hospital might get it off the ground- look at it as a research opportunity- lots of ideas abound- including funding-we need to talk.


  5. Craig Swerdloff May 23, 2007 9:26 am

    Had a baby boy on Friday, so experienced this first hand. I was looking for wireless access the entire time while at the hospital. Was thinking about Twitter as a good tool for this. Thoughts?

  6. Eric Olson May 23, 2007 8:48 pm

    Congrats Craig! As for Twitter - I have been thinking of that as a good method to communicate in hospitals but it may be too techie for most. I was thinking the solution would have to be dead simple. So simple that even my grandparents, who don’t know what Google is, could use it and interact with it. What do you think?