As hospitals build physician networks and strive to associate themselves with primary care, one challenge is to build relationships with busy consumers.
Some hospitals are reaching out to people where they shop, in malls and grocery stores. Retail business has proved to be a good partner for some urban hospitals trying to tap the suburban market.
In Louisville, Ky., Jewish Hospital HealthCare Services runs health and information centers in four malls within 20 miles of its campus.
Jewish, which is in the city, considers the malls a major part of its strategy to build relationships with the majority of consumers in the market, who live in the suburbs.
The centers are staffed with registered nurses and open during regular mall hours. Visitors can watch videos, check out books, attend health screenings, and get free or low-cost lessons on diabetes management, yoga, smoking cessation and numerous health topics. It costs about $200,000 a year to run each center, including staff.
Some hospitals in the past decade tried renting mall space but did not find it a cost-effective way to generate referrals, said Rhoda Weiss, a consultant who is president of the American Society for Health Care Marketing and Public Relations. However, she said a recession in retail has led some malls to draw in healthcare tenants.
Jewish officials believe the malls are a good way to build relationships with consumers.
Linda McGinity, vice president of public relations at Jewish, estimates 25 to 30 hospitals nationwide lease retail space in malls. Consumers find malls more convenient and less intimidating than the hospital, she said.
Jewish has seen its market share edge up about 1% a year in the past five years, McGinity said, although she is not certain the increase is attributable to the centers.
In 1995, the centers received 193,000 visitors, conducted 105,000 screenings and made 15,100 physician referrals, the hospital said.
Also that year, Jewish recorded 5,400 first-time patients who had their initial encounter at the mall.
The retail establishment took a while to warm up to the idea when the first center opened about five years ago. "We practically had to beg the mall to let us in," said Debbie Landers, director of the centers.
Since then, mall managers have called to ask the hospital to move in. One mall lowered its rent to entice the hospital to renew its lease, McGinity said. "There was concern we wouldn't draw people in, and we did," she said.
"A lot of wellness classes are held at the mall. You're having healthy people who don't want to go to a classroom at a hospital," Landers said.
The supermarket is another place where consumerism and healthcare converge. A number of hospitals are partnering with grocery stores to offer consumers healthcare information.
University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia is trying to boost its following in the suburbs, where it has built a network of primary-care physicians.
It partnered with Genuardi's Supermarkets to put kiosks in 26 stores last October. In the first five months, 185,000 recipes were printed by the kiosks, according to Carter Retail Technologies, a Richmond, Va.-based firm that sets up and maintains the kiosks.
The kiosks provide healthy recipes and serve as a place to distribute hospital brochures and an 800 number for the hospital's physician referral line. The supermarket advertises the kiosks on its circulars and bags.
Carter manages kiosks for 15 hospitals and nine hospital chains in the Northeast and South. The cost to the hospital is $500 per month per kiosk.
The medical center plans to evaluate the program thoroughly this summer but is confident enough to renew the kiosks for another year, said Will Ferniany, associate executive vice president for marketing and strategic support.
"Genuardi's stores are in markets we want to be in, that we have primary-care doctors around. I've always believed every time you can get information to a person in a new setting, they see it more. Normally, you don't find hospital messages in the grocery store," Ferniany said.
Like the Internet, where every business seems to want to be, kiosks offer interactive technology and video. But unlike the Internet, kiosks can target a specific geographic area.
Lewis-Gale Medical Center, a Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. facility in Salem, Va., has five supermarket kiosks in their second year of operation. It also has a site on the World Wide Web.
"The difference with the kiosk is that we know the hits we're getting are in a targeted market area," said Terri Reynolds Rush, regional marketing director for Columbia's southwest Virginia hospitals.
She also is encouraged by the fact that the hospital brochures on the kiosks must be replenished every week.