Five ways you should be using the Internet

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A recent Wall Street Journal column by Daniel Henninger opined on the end of stability. "Stability," Henninger pens, "whose virtues are many, has had a worthy run. It's done." He goes on, "This new, exponentially expanding world of information technologies is now creating permanent instability." Then he poses a compelling question: "Why would anyone think it possible to maintain stability with the same methods they've used for the past 30 years?"

It's a great question to ponder as we consider the future of our HME industry.

It's human nature to keep doing what we've always done. But this human nature is allowing entire industries to be flipped on their head and ruled by new methods. Internet technology is changing every industry and it's already knocking on the HME door. Prepare. Quickly. All the statistics tell us that the web is an enabler of a seismic change in the way consumers assess and access health care. It is leading to an evolution, perhaps revolution, toward a consumer-centric healthcare system. Two-thirds of seniors who use the web use it every day. Web usage among seniors with money is more than 90%. Make no mistake, the Internet is a key component in patients deciding what healthcare services to obtain and where to get them. Google is the de facto second opinion on health care.

If you have viewed e-commerce only in terms of direct sales opportunities, then you're ignoring the huge part of the iceberg that sits below the water's surface: web-influenced commerce. Purchases via the Internet are now 7% of all purchases and growing. Importantly, more than 40% of all purchase decisions are now made with the influence of the Internet. Healthcare decisions are becoming heavily influenced by information and opinion obtained by consumers via the Internet.

Patients are not just learning from websites, they are learning from each other. Millions of elderly, disabled and caregivers are active in disease-state specific social networking. These are a source of information, innovations, options and support. Facebook adoption by older people is on the same growth curve in 2011 as it was for college students in 2008. It's not surprising that businesses of all types are unsure how to proceed with this very young media format. But to confuse uncertainty about how to approach social media with uncertainty about the magnitude of its impact on health care would be a mistake. Social media requires your attention. Begin with the introduction of new products, product demos, notification of events and video education and follow-up--all effective uses of social media.

There are multiple paths to success in leveraging web technology to grow your business. Using technology to facilitate customer relationship management is another technology opportunity for HME providers. Building a database war chest (think e-mail and cell numbers) that you can mine for years to come will strengthen your business. Having more and better data creates opportunities. Communicate with your customer, maintain an ongoing relationship, make sure that you are alerting them about new products that could help them. Don't ignore "traditional" web assets, either. Keep your website current and relevant with medical information, follow-up instructions, video, on-line tools, forms and links to other resources. Search engines are important and it takes money to be found.

Henninger's column on the end of stability was not about HME. He was writing about the fall of the Egyptian government, a 30-year regime that crumbled in just 18 days, an extraordinary revolution enabled by the Internet. But the "instability" he describes applies to every business in America today, including yours. We live in a time of exponential change and the technology revolution is a critical driver in that change. Why would any HME provider think it possible to maintain their business with the same methods?

Mike Mallaro is CFO of The VGM Group.