QR codes go beyond hospital marketing tool to help patients

You've seen them at Starbucks, and possibly on brochures for clothing or other retail products. But you may have missed the growing momentum in healthcare for the use of "quick-response" or QR codes.

QR codes are the small, square bar-code-like images in paper and other media, which users can scan with their smartphones to be linked to a website, or receive specialized messages or information instantly.

"Quick response, or QR Codes, just might be the fastest-growing marketing and advertising tool in quite a while. And it could be your new best friend for more efficient hospital marketing," say bloggers at the Healthcare Marketing Exchange.

Consider this: A recent study by Comscore reports that more than 14 million adults in the U.S. used QR codes in the first half of 2011, and that number is expected to rise exponentially by year's end.

Indeed, most marketing experts put them as the Next Big Thing for hospital marketing, and we've even found a few hospitals that are using them in interesting ways, prompting women to get mammograms, providing instant online hospital tours, and linking patients to their Facebook pages.

The potential is enormous, believes marketing consultant Mary Pat Whaley of managemypractice.com. In a recent interview with American Medical News, Whaley predicted that QR codes will quickly become de rigueur for:

  • Appointments: Athens [Ga.] Regional Medical Center puts QR codes in newspapers, magazines and even postcard ads to drive women to a special appointment page where they can actually sign up for a mammogram. About 15 percent of the appointment page's traffic now comes from QR codes, Courtney Alford-Pomeroy, ARMC's website marketing manager, tells the Athens Banner-Herald. Insurer TriStar Health also is using QR codes to broadcast ER wait times to potential patients.
  • Patient education: Physicians can create special QR-enabled sites with nitty-gritty tips for specific groups of patients who need regular reminders or more engagement to manage a chronic disease, Whaley explains.
  • Patient testimonials: Poudre Valley Health System in Colorado links users to both its Facebook and YouTube pages to read comments and watch videos of patients describing their experiences with the facility's maternity department.
  • Marketing specialty services: Nebraska Medical Center pushes QR codes for physicians who perform rare or special procedures, helping them explain their expertise and the value of their procedures.
  • Facility tours and maps: Penn State's Hershey Medical center allows users to download maps and directions to its facility via QR code, while Nebraska Medical Center provides a full video tour of its hospitals with its QR codes.

One important caveat: Don't just send users to your website, Whaley warns. QR code-driven traffic should get original, creative content such as a video of a physician describing his services, or a special page with reminders of needed tests.

A couple of other untested but intriguing options for QR codes include codes embedded in patient charts to allow in-hospital communication between clinicians, or placing QR codes in patient homes to alert emergency personnel to allergies, medications and other important information.

And one unexpected benefit your marketing directors will love: QR codes can provide unprecedented ability to track which ads are actually capturing patients' attention, and generating web traffic. Each QR code is unique to the publication or media in which it's placed, but all lead back to the same website or information page.

Let us know what you think of QR codes. Are they the latest marketing fad, or a way to truly better connect with patients on the go? - Sara (@FierceHealthIT)