Near the Staples Mill exit on Interstate 64, three billboards from competing hospitals are within yards of one another. One announces the recent merger of VCU Medical Center and Children’s Hospital. Another directs drivers to search for a doctor on Bon Secours’ website. (We hope it’s not so convincing that drivers browse the Internet while driving.)
And perhaps the most noticeable at 60 mph: A digital counter that shows how long you’ll wait if you have to go to the emergency room at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital.
“We know that right now the research shows that health care is one of the key areas consumers are interested in,” said Karen Nelson, executive director of marketing at HDH, explaining the fresh marketing strategy.
“People are reaching a point where they are self-educating and wanting a choice. You have to provide the information back so you can compete effectively for that mindshare and that customer,” Nelson said.
It’s part of a campaign launched by the HCA, which owns Henrico’s Doctor’s Hospital. HCA also has the digital ER-wait counter on billboards for the Chippenham Hospital and for Parham Doctors’ Hospital near Parham Road.
Billboards typically cost about $3,000 a month. Hospitals also advertise heavily in glossy magazines.
The campaign started at an HCA hospital in Florida that used electronic documentation systems at the emergency room to feed data to a system that allows people to check ER wait times online and via text message.
Sheldon Maguire, HDH’s emergency services administrator, said the emergency department has been working for a year and half to get operations in line with the HCA standards to make its wait times public.
The wait times are based on four-hour averages and are updated every 30 minutes. Those figures then go out on the Internet, via text messages and to the billboards.
“We really started to peel back all the layers that had been put in place to say, ‘How can we get that patient to the provider within minutes of them coming into the door?’” Maguire said.
The wait times that appear to the public, Maguire said, “fluctuate from 14 minutes to sometimes more than we want.”
Richmond BizSense reporters have seen the digital clock display wait times of about 30 minutes.
HDH’s internal marketing team launched the campaign in May, Nelson said. The billboards began popping in the past eight weeks.
Nelson didn’t say exactly how much the hospital is spending on the campaign. She said the hospital is working with all the big billboard companies, including Lamar.
The numbers suggest people are paying attention.
“The web traffic we’ve had and text traffic have escalated through the roof,” Nelson said, since the campaign launched. HDH received more than 3,000 text message inquires in the first three weeks of the campaign, and its website saw a 61 percent increase in visits.
Nelson said she wouldn’t exactly call the wait time counter a marketing function. “It’s more of an awareness, I’d say,” she said.
“It helps the community to be better aware of the services we are offering,” Maguire said, “in a very publicly visible way.”
The public nature of ER wait times also has HCA’s own hospital competing.
“Sister hospitals compete with each other on their times,” Maguire said.
Michael Schwartz is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected].