QR code fails: How marketers are ruining potential patient engagement tool

If you've tried using QR codes in your organization's marketing campaigns or patient engagement efforts I have news for you.

You're doing it wrong.

OK, there are some examples of healthcare organizations using QR codes well. There are always exceptions that prove the rule. And if you're one of those exceptions, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email about how awesome you are.

But my experience with these little black and white squares has been disappointing at best, maddening at worst. And I'm not alone: Just Google "QR fail" and you'll get plenty of examples. My favorite? A QR code on a subway station billboard … posted on the wall across from the tracks … behind the third rail.


QR stands for quick response (which I point out only because the rules of journalism dictate that I do even though no one calls them that). They've been around for a while, but lately they've been popping up everywhere. And they have a ton of potential, especially for healthcare. 

Hospitals promoting their cardiac service line could embed a code with a link to heart-healthy recipes. Want to promote your ortho services? Send potential patients to docs' profiles. Send your patients with diabetes to the download page for an app to help them track their glucose levels. You could direct patients to videos with tips to quit smoking, information about a new medication or post-surgical discharge instructions.

The possibilities for engaging patients in their health--which will be so important under payment reform and accountable care--are endless.

And yet examples of QR code fails are seemingly endless as well.

I recently scanned a QR code that promised an interactive guide to making healthy choices at summer barbeques. The code was on a snazzy poster that showed a really cool chart with pictures of plates filled with grilled goodies. It promised interactive content with nutritional information, calorie counts and light versions of recipes for barbeque classics, for example.

What it delivered was a link to a Web page that was not optimized for mobile and an error message telling me that I need a flash player in order to view it.


Bad QR codes usually share one trait: They are designed for the benefit of the business, not the customer.

But there are lessons to be learned from QR worst practices, customized, as we like to do here at Fierce, for the healthcare industry. A few:

  • Don't send patients to a page that asks them to sign up for more information. Users scan QR codes with the expectation that they'll receive more information without jumping through hoops--or ending up on yet another email list--to get it.  
  • Don't send patients to a page where they can pay their bill or input information about their health insurance claims. That tactic might be good for your organization's bottom line, but it comes off as self-serving and money-grubbing. Is that the brand image you want to convey?
  • Don't send patients to you organization's home page. QR codes should go to microsites with specialized content, pages to download apps or get other cool features and meaningful content. If the content is not useful to the user, what's the point?
  • And here's a tip for the urology practices out there: QR codes on posters in your waiting room are a really bad idea. That's all I have to say about that.

And finally--for goodness' sake--please do not send a patient who has just scanned a QR code with a mobile device to a site that isn't optimized for mobile. I'm not dignifying that one with an explanation, either. But if your hospital doesn't have at least a few pages on its website optimized for mobile, maybe you should work on that before rolling out a QR code campaign.

I'd love to hear some positive examples of how you're using QR codes in your hospital or physician practice. But please do feel free to share examples about the QR code fails you've run into--so much more fun.

And after all, isn't cool technology supposed to be fun? - Gienna