Inside most people's wallets can be found a driver's license, an ATM card, a variety of credit cards and perhaps a frequent-flier card. Recently, many patients at four-hospital system Memorial Health Services based in Long Beach, Calif., added another type of card: a Medical Access and Information Card.
The card looks like a typical plastic credit card with a magnetic stripe. However, the stripe is imprinted with medical information, including a person's blood type, medical history and insurance coverage. Physicians and hospital staff can access a patient's data with just a swipe of the card. In addition, the information becomes part of a database that can be used to generate age-specific healthcare information for the card holder. For example, when a woman turns 40, she will be sent a letter reminding her to start getting mammograms.
For its medical information card, Memorial Health Services receives this year's Innovation in Healthcare Information Technology Award in the category of innovation.
Use of the card has decreased admission time and paperwork. Because the card reader links to online payer databases, physicians spend only 30 seconds per patient to check insurance eligibility, down from 61/2 minutes. The medical card readers, which can be separate units or installed in computers, can also check credit cards. That feature has increased the system's credit card collections to $9,637 per month in November 1998, compared with $249 per month in January 1998.
"In a nutshell, our objective included building a bridge to our physicians," says J. Scott Joslyn, Memorial's senior vice president and chief information officer. "Eligibility is a big issue. Staff at physician offices spend a lot of time on the phone to confirm eligibility. This obviates the need for that. In addition, the machine has credit card capability. Physicians can process co-payments on a credit card. Co-pays can make the difference between profit and loss."
Improving efficiency was necessary for physician buy-in, says Julie Mamath, manager of the card program. "We knew that it was very beneficial to consumers and to physicians, but we knew that physicians had to see financial and efficiency benefits."
Initially, the card program began as a response to the company's objective to create consumer relationship-based marketing.
"This grew as an answer to a business objective, not as a technology objective," says Annette Walker, vice president of MemorialCare, the system's benchmarking and outcomes-management arm. "The technology was the means to the business objective. We wanted to find a better way to understand what our consumers wanted. We looked at consumer relationship marketing (and card programs) in the hotel, airline and grocery store industries. What were they doing in their business that the healthcare consumer would want if they wanted to develop some relationship with us?"
Working with focus groups and conducting phone surveys of more than 1,500 consumers, MemorialCare designed a card program to meet consumer needs, Walker says. "The consumers told us what they wanted. Consumer research dictated what the card would look like and what we wanted it to do. They even gave us the name for the program."
Consumers did have two major concerns: confidentiality and the possibility of someone else having access to the information if the card was lost or stolen. To ensure privacy, MemorialCare pledged that the information provided by the patient is "for the exclusive use of MemorialCare and its physicians in the delivery of enhanced medical services to you and your family."
Working with Imperial Technologies, Memorial Health Services debuted the medical information card in a limited pilot program in December 1997. The pilot program began with a direct mail package aimed at 1,947 patients from two physician offices. More than 15% of the patients jumped at the offer. Since then, 36 doctors have enrolled in the program with 45 on the waiting list, while almost 1,500 patients have begun using the card. Memorial Health Services has a patent pending on the process of using the card.
"The card sold itself," says Susan Solomon, executive director of marketing. "We were getting about 300 phone calls a week for applications. The card empowers consumers who want to control their healthcare. It sounds like a simple idea. It's what people have asked for and haven't received."
Memorial Health Services believes the card will continue to steer patients in its direction, Walker says. "We feel we will begin to see more patients come to us over time because they're carrying a card with our brand on it," she says. "We want to increase brand recognition and loyalty. Hopefully, (patients) will feel involved and feel like they have a relationship with us."
Memorial Health Services will continue to experiment with new functions and uses for the card.
"(The program) had benefits beyond what we expected," Joslyn says. "It generated more enthusiasm and synergistic uses of the card. We see lots of follow-up capability, such as use on the Internet. This can go in many directions. There are many ways to leverage this card for the benefit of patient care."