Providers slowly warming to the Web

Friday, September 30, 2005

CHICAGO - It has taken awhile, but the HME industry finally seems to be getting it with regard to the Internet's value as a sales and marketing tool. Still, online authorities say the provider community continues to lag behind other sectors when it comes to utilizing the Web's potential.
"They're not using it as much as they could," said Mike Mallaro, chief financial officer for Waterloo, Iowa-based VGM Forbin. "A decent portion of forward-thinking providers recognize its importance and have excellent sites they are benefiting from, but there are categories of people out there who either have a minimal Web presence or nothing at all."
Overall though, the reticence and skepticism of previous years seems to have dissipated, observers say, and that HME is now more at ease with the online medium. Providers are using it in a variety of ways, such as posting product, service and clinical information for consumers and referral sources; e-commerce with vendors and customers; and online training for employees.
"We're seeing more Web-sites - providers are realizing that educating consumers about products and services is a natural part of their marketing program," said Cy Corgan, national sales manager for retail mobility at Exeter, Pa.-based Pride Mobility. "They can also link to our Web site, which has clinically specific information for referral sources."
Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare has seen a 40% increase in traffic and a 35% increase in downloads from its Web site, said Web content manager Janet Nabring-Stager.
"We've gotten a substantial increase in our online sales through providers," she said. "Providers are using images off our Web site and increasing their search engine optimization. Because Invacare doesn't sell direct to consumers, we provide a link through a dealer locator on our Web site."
More providers are equipping their Web sites with transactional capabilities for consumer sales, as well as for communicating with vendors, said Spencer Kay, president of Plainview, N.Y.-based Fastrack Healthcare Systems.
"A lot of our clients are setting up e-commerce Web sites beyond just information and are doing that very successfully," he said.
Mundelein, Ill.-based Medline Industries is seeing an influx of providers using for product ordering and delivery, said Dave Ralston, vice president of Medline's e-business.
" allows providers to do business in real time," he said. "If they don't have the product in stock - such as a special bariatric wheelchair - they can get the price from the Web site along with delivery information."
Online learning tools are also gaining traction in the HME industry, as evidenced by Atlanta-based CareCentric's new product launch at Medtrade 2005.
"Up until now we've focused on home health, but we expect HME providers to take advantage of Web educational programs, as well," said Erick Allen, director of corporate education.