The Internet and its accouterments are reshaping the world, including advocacy efforts.
Sisters of Mercy Health System-St. Louis is using its World Wide Web site to take advantage of the ease and power of e-mail. Since mid-July, visitors to its site, www.smhs.com, have been clicking on "advocacy" and finding a host of links to legislative leaders, advocacy groups and other information.
You can send a postcard to your member of Congress protesting Balanced Budget Act cutbacks. You can see a list of your elected representatives. You can find out what's on the Senate's agenda this week. You can find out how much HCFA's new budget cutback for the Medicare outpatient prospective payment system is going to cost Catholic hospitals.
You can even sign up for Action E-List, which will send you an e-mail flash any time an important issue arises.
"We're spread all the way from St. Louis to Laredo, Texas," said Barbara Meyer, Sisters of Mercy communications director, whose brainchild this was. "You can only do so much by phone and fax."
With the Internet, said Roy Mitchell, Sisters director of advocacy, "We don't have to be in Washington; we don't have to be in St. Louis. We can connect with all these people in a matter of minutes all over the country."
Mitchell's point is doubly true when you learn that he works from Jackson, Miss. From its St. Louis headquarters, Sisters operates hospitals in six states, but Mississippi isn't one of them. Instead, it has a patient-advocacy program there, which Mitchell runs.
"From Roy's perspective," Meyer said, "the greater need was, how do you get the information out there to anyone who's interested, not just leaders? Who's interested in issues that impact not just healthcare but society as a whole? How do you help them to act?"
Many healthcare organizations are involved in advocacy, employing public affairs specialists and participating in the political process in Washington and state capitals. But few of those invite the public to join in.
Most large hospitals have Web sites. But a brief, informal survey of the sites of some well-known systems didn't find any that encouraged the public to lobby directly, or that made it easy to zip a message to an elected official.
The American Hospital Association's Web site (www.aha.org), for instance, lists issues on which the association is working, but the real meat and potatoes is hidden behind a security password. Only members can participate, and the site makes no attempt to seek advice from the general public.
The Web site of the Daughters of Charity National Health System offers an advocacy section intended for people in system management, local health ministries and social service workers. "The public and patients have not been our main focus," said Katherine Hayes, director of public policy at Daughters headquarters in St. Louis. The system is rebuilding its advocacy site to lend it more grass-roots capabilities.
In the six to seven weeks since the Sisters of Mercy site introduced the advocacy feature, it's had almost 500 hits, from 180 different users. It's been popular with advocacy coordinators and ministry officials at Sisters' far-flung outposts.
To Meyer, advocacy doesn't just mean lobbying. "We look at it as enabling not only our leadership but anybody who is associated with our system-employee, volunteer, physician-who shares the views we have on issues, to have a voice in the decisionmaking processes going on at the national and state levels."
The site's technical capabilities are supplied by a Washington Internet contractor, Capitol Advantage, which supplies its Web-based political information to 350 organizations and companies. "It looks and feels like the client's server," said Bob Hansan, Capitol's president. "It's a seamless integration of our content with their look."
So far, he said, Sisters of Mercy is the only hospital or healthcare organization that's expressed interest in his product.