Successful hospital marketing

Steinbeis experts design online consultation service that builds trust

With its social nature, Web 2.0 is a versatile platform that can supply all kinds of information. And if you’re looking for top quality information, it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. The Steinbeis Consulting Center for Business Performance in Munich is an expert when it comes to useful information. Gaby Perfahl and Dirk Gäbler from the center have launched an online consultation portal for the Brothers of Mercy Hospital (Krankenhaus der Barmherzigen Brüder) in Munich. They designed the portal as a way of acquiring new patients, implemented it on-site, and continue to manage it professionally.

Many hospitals know that a reliable online consultation service can be helpful in establishing trust and acting as a first point of contact to new patients. But people’s needs, and the variety of questions people pose online, are just as complex and individual as the people themselves. “As a result, many hospital managers are resistant to the idea of an online consultation service, which is understandable,” explains Dirk Gäbler, describing some of his own initial experiences. The much-debated problems affecting the German health care sector as a whole, and in-patient institutions in particular, also play a role.

From the perspective of conventional hospital marketing, an online consultation service is a sales tool – and its central purpose is to acquire and retain customers. And from the perspective of the hospital managers who have commissioned the system, it should not create any major increase in doctors’ day-to-day workload. In turn, patients seeking advice should be able to ask specific questions and receive prompt, clear and reliable answers. But where does service begin – and where does it end? At most, an online service can only provide anonymous advice to patients. In the early days of the Internet, access to information was limited and users were mistrustful. Today, anyone can provide information for anyone else, and people can share information and discuss issues freely.

Web 2.0, social media and online communities have permanently changed the Internet, creating brand new communication channels in areas which were previously only discussed personally and confidentially between doctors and patients. The Brothers of Mercy Hospital has always been committed to responsible patient care for both in- and out-patients. In today’s world, patients must increasingly be treated as customers. This approach is establishing itself as a standard in the medical world, ensuring institutions such as hospitals know how to position and present themselves in today’s challenging times. With this in mind, the online consultation serves two central goals:

  1. To attract and retain new customers. New patients generally present with a specific individual problem and have their own questions and opinions. They may already have a diagnosis from a doctor. This calls for an initial professional assessment of the situation, which must include referring the patient to the hospital for a personal examination. For new customers, a quick, personal reply is often their first – and very positive – contact with a hospital. As they say in business, where a customer feels they get good advice, that’s where they’ll make the purchase.
  2. To prepare patients for a personal consultation in the hospital surgery. Even the best online consultation service cannot, and should not, replace a personal examination by a doctor. But sharing the right information in advance can help make the most of doctors’ appointments – both in terms of time, and by providing information which assists diagnosis.

When designing the online consultation service, the team discussed a range of options for the patient response “workflow” – always bearing in mind that users should receive a professional reply to their inquiries within 48 hours. To achieve this, the staff of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Business Performance prepared a comprehensive set of specific and professional answers to potential patient inquiries. A team of doctors, medical specialists, pharmacists, nutritionists, patients and other parties worked handin- hand with the Steinbeis experts in formulating the answers. The staff of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Business Performance has experience in this area and are highly adept at formulating written information that is medically precise as it needs to be while remaining as understandable as possible. The job of the hospital doctors is to check and approve these carefully written answers. These prompt, reliable answers often form the basis for later treatment in the hospital.

But how do customers find out about the online consultation service? For one thing, it can be seamlessly integrated into existing hospital websites and even split up according to specific areas, such as an eye consultation service. Clicking on this particular link launches the online consultation service and gives users the chance to discuss their eye problem. As well as introducing the hospital team behind the online consultation service, the FAQ page provides patients with a list of previously asked questions (anonymous, of course) and their answers. Other important measures to publicize the service and attract users include keyword marketing and web catalog listings – a sort of online word-ofmouth advertising. Other tried-and-tested measures which could be used to promote the services include advertisements, banners, flyers, and articles in hospital magazines, but these are not strictly necessary and their use depends on the available budget.

eTracking analyses have shown that the average user spends a relatively long time on the online consultation website of the Brothers of Mercy Hospital in Munich. But as many visitors from outside Germany leave the site again quickly, the service is now being offered in languages other than German.

Gaby Perfahl and Dirk Gäbler are now planning to launch this innovative and successful idea at other hospitals and health insurers. Their aim is to provide answers for the most common medical indications – those which typically result in the most patient inquiries. “If we’re sure of one thing,” says Gaby Perfahl, “it’s that patients are increasingly becoming customers. Ensuring patient satisfaction calls for new approaches. The online consultation service bridges the virtual world of information and the hospital’s specialist departments.”

As well as helping hospitals stay close to their customers, the online consultation service has a positive effect on the bottom line. By providing the answers online, the Steinbeis service relieves hospital doctors of extra responsibilities. So for the hospital, the online consultation service has next to no impact on their day-to-day workflow. Today, the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Business Performance in Munich is developing a range of social media solutions for hospitals.


Gaby Perfahl, Dirk Gäbler
Steinbeis Consulting Center for Business Performance (Munich)

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