This week the VHA hospital alliance is expected to roll out nationally a marketing and branding campaign linked to the Internet.
The unveiling is slated for VHA's annual leadership meeting in Orlando, Fla. It follows regional testing of the Internet concept in four markets, which started last fall (Sept. 28, 1998, p. 17).
Called Laurus-a Latin reference to the laurel wreaths worn by champions-the World Wide Web site and companion telephone call center provide consumers with the straight dope on common medical tests, procedures and drugs as well as specific information about participating VHA hospitals and their affiliated doctors.
Executives at VHA, an Irving, Texas-based alliance of more than 1,700 not-for-profit hospitals, are convinced that consumers bent on helping themselves will embrace the Web as a health resource, much as many do-it-yourselfers have already done in managing their finances. Already, 43% of the estimated 41 million American adults tapping into the Internet are searching for health information, according to research by VHA and Deloitte & Touche.
"No one we talked to, no matter in what part of the country, disagreed that there's a different expectation being placed on providers by more enlightened and demanding consumers," said Kelly Breazeale, VHA senior group vice president. Laurus, at www.laurus.com, is part of VHA's answer.
With Laurus, participating VHA hospitals get a ready-made set of Web resources and collateral advertising material they can customize, adding local information about doctors and hospitals.
The estimated costs to participate vary widely-from as little as $50,000 for a single hospital in a rural market to more than $1 million for a large healthcare system. Actual expenses depend on the size of the organization, the local price for advertising to tout the site and the Laurus features that a member selects.
In the face of an explosion of Web sites devoted to healthcare, Breazeale said Laurus stands apart by virtue of its powerful connection to local healthcare organizations.
Profiles of local physicians have been the No. 1 destination, accounting for 19% of activity on the site, according to statistics VHA compiled in the test markets. Hospital profiles, by contrast, ranked sixth at 8% of activity.
VHA and the health systems that have signed on so far have found that a third of participating consumers were very likely to choose a doctor affiliated with Laurus. As for hospitals, 28% of Laurus users said they were very likely to choose an institution affiliated with Laurus, and only 12% said they were unlikely to do so.
"I'm convinced that this is the way we will connect with patients in the future," said Paul Wiles, president of Novant Health, based in Winston-Salem, N.C. Novant, an eight-hospital system, signed on in March as the fourth test market for Laurus.
But physicians may be slower to warm to the concept than consumers.
"Doctors being doctors, there's a healthy amount of skepticism about programs like this," said Stanley Hupfeld, president and chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based Integris Health. The system, the first Laurus participant, owns 12 hospitals and leases three. As of late March, several hundred physicians affiliated with Integris had posted profiles describing their practices and training.
Hupfeld remains upbeat about the Laurus concept and is particularly attracted by the national branding of Integris. He called it a "sort of Intel-inside phenomenon."
The Laurus formula, pairing national and local information, "has great value," said Chris Bogan, president of Best Practices, a consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. But VHA, like other operators of Internet services, may face challenges in drawing repeat customer visits. A consumer, Bogan said, may look once at the physician profiles to select a doctor and then not return for years. For Laurus to succeed in the long term, Bogan said, "they need to bond their customers to them."