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A loyal following

JOHN SEELMEYER

One of life’s minor annoyances is that twosided form attached to a clipboard that’s handed to patients whenever they arrive at a physician’s office or a hospital.

Northern Nevada Medical Center, however, bets that a convenient way of carrying all that information on a wallet-sized card may provide a good tool to build consumer loyalty.

And NNMC is one of the first hospitals in the nation to take on the program.

The hospital based in Sparks has been making a big push since early summer to encourage consumers to sign up for its Patient Care Card, a concept it’s licensed from a California company.

The card’s magnetic strip carries a patient’s personal information, emergency contact data, medical history, health insurance information and physician contacts.

When the patient arrives at Northern Nevada Medical Center or the office of a participating physician, an employee simply swipes the card through a reader to generate the patient’s information.

The cards are provided free to patients.

Simple enough? Rolling out the card has required a fair amount of one-at-a-time marketing, says Susan Hill, director of marketing at NNMC.

“People have been very intrigued about the idea once they find out about it.Most people want the cards,” she says.”But it takes more than 30 seconds to explain it.”

The hospital has been running a schedule of television, radio and print advertising about the Patient Care Card.

Typically,Hill says, patients see the advertising but want to talk it through with a marketing staff member before they sign up.

That means that an employee of the hospital is devoting nearly all her time to providing information about NNMC, and it’s not unusual for her voice mailbox to be filled if she’s away for a while.

“They really are starting to come in now,” Hill says of applications for the card.”Our hardworking, lean and mean marketing staff is sort of stretched right now.”

At the same time, NNMC is making presentations about the card to physicians.

Every time a physician’s office signs up, the card becomes more valuable to the consumer who has more places to use it.

The pitch to physicians: Use of the Patient Care Card provides better patient satisfaction while controlling administrative costs.

“One of the biggest expenditures for them is getting that patient demographic form filled out,”Hill says.

Even the costs of deciphering patients’ handwriting on the forms can add up.

The cost to physicians’ office is $57 for a card reader.

It’s a lot of work, and NNMC expects complete rollout of the card will take about a year.

But the investment is worthwhile, hospital officials believe, because of the potential to build customer loyalty.

Harvey Hirsh, national sales director for the MIAC Card Program, the outfit that developed the card, explains the loyalty-building efforts this way: Imagine, Hirsch says, that United Airlines distributed frequent-flyer cards to consumers who hadn’t yet made their first airline flight.

When it came time to make reservations, consumers would be likely to pick United simply because they had the card in hand.

Consumers already are accustomed to the idea that wallet-sized cards such as a hotel chain’s loyalty card carries information about their personal preferences.

“Any hospitals that take this on are gearing themselves to serve consumers in the way that consumers are served in other parts of their lives,”Hirsch says.

Even so, he acknowledged that the medical professions often are slow to embrace change, and hospitals often aren’t accustomed to making marketing investments such as those involved in the Patient Care Card.

Participating hospitals pay an upfront licensing fee to MIAC Card Program as well as a fee for each card they distribute.

The MIAC Card Program was developed during the past six years by a unit of MemorialCare Health Centers of Long Beach, Calif.

Northern Nevada Hospital is one of the first two hospitals outside the MemorialCare system the other is Washington Hospital Healthcare in California’s East Bay to launch the Patient Care Card.

“They are a very early adopter,”Hirsch said.