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How beacons engage patients where they are—on their smartphones

August 29, 2017

    Real-time locationing systems (RTLS) that use technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID), WiFi, and Infrared have been around for more than a decade to help health care organizations (HCOs) track assets and people internally. However, none of these technologies enable HCOs to bridge the gap between facility and patient—a new imperative for consumer-focused heath systems.

    Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), often called beacon technology, has the potential to be a game changer. Together, beacons and their corresponding BLE-enabled mobile apps can facilitate a wide variety of digital patient interactions that can make a patient's time on your campus less intimidating and confusing.

    What are beacons?

    Beacons are generally low-cost ($25—$75 apiece), low-power-consuming devices. They are about the size of a computer mouse (or smaller). As the graphic below illustrates, beacons transmit a signal that can be picked up by nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as smartphones and tablets that have a BLE-enabled application downloaded from an app store. As the patient with the smartphone passes near a beacon—either in a fixed location or adhered to something moveable—the mobile app can push location-specific, contextually-relevant messages to the device.

    When compared with two of the most established RTLS technologies, RFID and WiFi, beacon technology has the advantage of being low-power, low-cost, and reasonable (indoor and outdoor) range. And most importantly, the majority of your patients already carry a device that supports it.

    Example beacon deployment process

    Look to other industries for consumer applications

    Health care can look to the retail, sports, and hospitality industries, who were early adopters of BLE to engage customers and improve their experience, for inspiration.

    • Retail: Major retailers (including Target, Macy's, and Walgreens) use BLE to conduct proximity-based marketing, provide customized assistance in real-time, and collect data on shopping patterns and behaviors.
    • Sports: MLB, the NBA, and the NFL use beacons to improve fan experience and generate additional sales. They push merchandise promotions, seat upgrade offers, and video greetings from players directly to the attendee's BLE-enabled mobile app.
    • Hospitality: Members of Starwood Hotels can take advantage of their "SPG Keyless" program that allows guests who have downloaded their app and opted-in to the service to skip front desk check-in altogether and walk directly to their assigned room for keyless entry.
    • Events: Conventions and other major events have gravitated toward beacons as a way to provide interactive content; over the past few years South by Southwest, HIMSS, and the Super Bowl have used beacons to enhance attendee experience.

    Beacons find traction within health care

    Use of beacons in health care is still in the early stages, but some leading-edge HCOs have started to test the waters.  Prime use cases for health care include wayfinding and indoor positioning, automated check-in, real-time feedback, targeted communications, and improved patient flow.

    Inspira Heath Network in New Jersey strives to provide the "Wow Experience" for all patients through personalized care. Inspired by beacon-powered engagement efforts at a local sporting event, IT leadership decided to incorporate the BLE functionality shown below into their mobile app and pilot it in one of their facilities.

    Inspira sends personalized check-in messages and greetings upon a patient's arrival, and as the patient leaves the facility, the patient is given a quick three-question survey about their experience. Patient interaction with these capabilities hinges on individual patient download of the BLE-enabled mobile app. Inspira drove adoption of their branded mobile app through a heavy marketing campaign that involved a kick-off block party to demonstrate functionality, informational signage around patient phone charging stations, and helpful frontline staff trained to educate patients on app features and troubleshoot common problems.

    Inspira Health Network's beacon-enabled app capabilities

    Modern Healthcare recently reported on the wayfinding efforts of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Medicine. Through their partnership with Connexient, UAB Medicine will provide digital wayfinding with turn-by-turn directions to help patient navigate their campus—all powered by beacon technology. The Parking Planner capability will recommend the best place to park based on their appointment location, and My Car Saver will send parking reminders to help patients quickly and easily return to their vehicle after their appointment. UAB Medicine anticipates not only improved overall patient satisfaction, but also a reduction in missed or late appointments and improved operational efficiency when they go live in summer 2017.

    The ability to easily communicate with patients and visitors in real-time within your facility is an appealing prospect, as many HCOs build out their consumer platform. Beacons—though not without their own set of challenges around security and end-user notification fatigue—now provide a cost-effective technology option that can bridge the divide to meet consumers wherever they are, on their smartphones.

    For an in-depth look at Bluetooth Low Energy, see Health Care IT Advisor's Beacon Technology in Health Care report.


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