Ada, Okla., may be off the beaten path for many people, but hospital executive Rory Ward travels the information superhighway on a regular basis.
About twice a week, the vice president of finance at Valley View Regional Hospital in Ada, dials into a new on-line service called HFMA NET. Via his desktop computer and modem, Mr. Ward can pose finance questions to colleagues or read articles from the monthly journal of the Healthcare Financial Management Association.
"It's neat because the primary reason you join a professional organization is because of networking," Mr. Ward said. Without the HFMA NET bulletin board-called "Debits and Credits"-he would have to wait until a quarterly HFMA chapter meeting to get feedback on a finance strategy from several colleagues at the same time.
On-line services certainly aren't anything new; Prodigy, America Online and Compu-Serve already have made inroads to millions of consumers and businesses equipped with personal computers and modems. More businesses also are tapping into the Internet, a web of some 25,000 corporate, education and research computer networks around the world. The network has almost an infinite amount of information and is becoming easier for healthcare organizations to use thanks to the World Wide Web (July 11, p. 50).
New to healthcare. However, this year, on-line networks specifically designed for the healthcare industry started coming into their own as well. For example, physicians have Physicians' Online, a service launched in February and supported by professional societies, managed-care companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, such as Marion Merrell Dow.
Many organizations have spawned their own on-line networks. For example, the Washington-based Mental Health Policy Resource Center maintains PIE (Policy Information Exchange) Online.
Yet, the most formidable entrant that hopes to tie in all segments of the industry is HealthOnline. The Brighton, Colo.-based service hopes to tie hospitals, other providers, vendors, consumers, trade associations, insurers and others into one interactive electronic community.
The roots of HealthOnline trace back to a service started by Kaiser & Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm, to communicate with clients. In 1993, San Francisco-based Healthcare Forum joined in as the services of the network began to broaden.
Last May, various hospital groups were invited to a demonstration of the network at the Healthcare Forum's Healthier Communities Summit in Anaheim, Calif.
The service includes the "Library," which has resource guides, case studies and USA Today. HealthOnline hopes to add full-text articles from healthcare journals. Another feature, "Town Hall," includes information on conferences, and the system's developers plan to add the capability of registering for conferences by computer. The "Post Office" has electronic mail, the "Professional Building" has floors and rooms for interactive conversations, and the "Emporium" is designed to be a shopping mall for healthcare-related tapes, speakers and consultants.
HealthOnline costs $750 a year for organizations, which may have as many as five people enrolled as network users. Individual memberships cost $180 annually. The organizational annual fee is set to go up to $1,000 for organizations that enroll after Jan. 1.
HealthOnline also is offering various sponsorships. For example, a company or group could sponsor a discussion "floor" about bioethics, capitation or another specific topic. Such a sponsorship would cost about $15,000, but it could vary depending on the length of the commitment.
HealthOnline, which has 350 users, also has applied for a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department to expand the network's databases. The federal funding is being made available to support Vice President Al Gore's goal of information-superhighway fund-ing projects to benefit the public good.
Although HealthOnline hopes to tie in many health-related users, it initially has been targeting hospitals and healthcare associations. For example, the Catholic Health Association, a 600-hospital organization, is in negotiations now to join the network.
"It's the first network with electronic services that's focused on healthcare," said Michael McCauley, vice president of communications services for the St. Louis-based organization.
Details of the agreement are still being worked out. However, if the CHA joins HealthOnline it likely would receive its own private floor in the "Professional Building." Within the floor, CHA members will communicate on various topics within "rooms."
Mr. McCauley said the CHA has been experimenting with its own bulletin board, and it may continue to explore that possibility even if it joins HealthOnline.
Getting into the act. Still, Health-Online hopes to make its service so attractive and comprehensive that it won't have to compete with dozens of copycats. For example, in the group's marketing literature, it says that "the size and sophistication of HealthOnline discourages the proliferation of other (bulletin boards) in the healthcare industry. The average subscriber will join only one or two (bulletin boards). The industry is not well-served by fragmentation of information resources."
However, that hasn't discouraged HFMA, the Westchester, Ill.-based professional organization for hospital financial officers.
HFMA NET now has 600 users, up 300 since it was opened to the group's 33,000 members on June 1. The service is free to HFMA members although they pay for long-distance charges to the 708 area code. Chapter officers dial toll free using an 800 number.
Users dial into the network between two and three times a week, said Ron Keener, the network's project manager.
HFMA NET also provides American Health Line, a Falls Church, Va.-based online news service; headlines from USA Today; Exec-u-Trak, a resume referral service; calendars; and electronic mail.
Another group that has started its own bulletin board system is the University Hospital Consortium, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based alliance of 67 academic medical centers.
The service, UHC Newsline, was designed to speed communication and reduce the expense of overnight mail and faxes, officials said. The alliance has about 25 professional councils, such as pharmacy managers or supply administrators, and is adding those groups this year.
UHC Newsline is free to the consortium's members, who dial a toll-free 800 number to access it.
In addition, VHA, Irving, Texas, also is looking at various on-line systems for its 1,039 members. The company already has on-line ordering for its materials managers, VHA-NET, and is looking at other on-line capabilities.
News service. Last month, another on-line news service got under way. HealthAlert is a daily news service that provides a customized digest of news culled from some 6,000 magazines, trade journals, newsletters and newspapers.
The service costs $460 per month for individual users, who may select as many as 10 topic headings. Topic headings include subjects such as healthcare reform, nursing or malpractice. Additional users can receive the report for $10 per month per user. Additional search topics can be added for $45 per month.
HealthAlert is the first of several industry-specific news digest reports that Costa Mesa, Calif.-based NewsMakers plans to offer during the next year.
The service, however, is different from other on-line services in that it dials into the users' network, rather than vice versa. After compiling the customized digest of stories, Health-Alert dials into an executive's or hospital's bulletin board service and transfers the information.
Users receive a one-paragraph summary of the story and can order the full-text for $1.20.
When asked how anyone has time to read 6,000 magazines and newspapers on a regular basis, Karl Karlsson, NewsMakers' president, said people don't read the articles, computers do. "Computer-generated abstracting" takes the first three sentences of an article and the first sentence of the next few paragraphs to provide a summary of the story.