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Communication is the low-hanging fruit in health reform

A hospital can maintain a 24-7 hotline. They can be on Google Talk, they can do videoconferencing if the patient supports it. Just have a front-end where the caller can input some identification number that brings up the record.

With many problems that seem intractable, enormous progress can be made with simple, even easy adjustments. (To the right, Dr. Jay Parkinson of The Future Well.)

Energy, for instance. When you insulate, caulk, get a smaller car and organize your travel a little you can actually save a lot of energy. The same applies to businesses. Efficiency is the low-hanging fruit.

In health the low hanging fruit is communication.

A story dubbed The Doctor Will Tweet You Now makes light of this, emphasizing Web 2.0 technologies. But doctors don't have to spend their days playing with Facebook or hiring SEO experts in order to get at the low-hanging fruit.

Just communicate.

You can be synchronous or asynchronous. Once you have electronic medical records (EMRs) on your patients, you can have a nurse answer the phone and provide enormous value.

Or just have someone on your staff checking the e-mail, and let them alert you on your cell phone if someone needs a few moments. You can have a P.A. handle this duty if you want.

Scaling makes this even better. A hospital can maintain a 24-7 hotline. They can be on Google Talk, they can do videoconferencing if the patient supports it. Just have a front-end where the caller can input some identification number that brings up the record. You don't have to have a surgeon answering the phone.

There are enormous marketing opportunities here. Imagine the brand loyalty your medical system can win from people if it's just available -- the medical record and someone answering the phone -- when necessary. At minimum you can tell a nervous mother whether she needs to come into the emergency room. And you can have the data waiting there.

Now I know you're asking, how do you get paid for this? Well, the investment for it is not enormous. If your hospital has EMRs (and most do), the identification is a fairly simple telephony-database lookup. It's a service bureau. It's practically telemarketing.

You can get most of the investment back in goodwill and brand loyalty. You're driving people to your hospital, after all, and doing a form of triage when your advice keeps a nervous person out of your emergency room.

You can brand it, you can advertise it on refrigerator magnets offered by physicians attached to you, and you can cut down on those stupid TV ads talking about how great you are. You can do something instead.

You could even build a concierge practice around this communication. Connect with companies which self-insure around your town -- insurance carriers know who they are. Sign them up for a monthly fee, and deliver a first-class service.

The tools for all this are now there, and with health reform so are the business models. If UnitedHealth can make money by saving money with a diabetes clinic at the local Y, imagine what can be saved through 24-7 communication that delivers wellness advice.

And it doesn't have to be synchronous. Have some of your young nurses organize Web resources and build a simple portal, under the approval of your medical board, which you can push out through links. Then you layer a do-it-yourself social network on top of it, and voila!

All the things I've described are relatively cheap and easy to do. As incentives for wellness kick in from employers and insurers, the business model for all this will be available.

There are going to be companies showing up who can make all this turnkey. Some will be spin-offs of existing health IT companies. Others will be run by doctors. Still others will be start-ups. You don't have to become Hello Health, but you can adapt elements of what they are doing to what you are doing.

It's the low-hanging fruit that tastes best, that yields the greatest profits from the least amount of work. Look for it in the technology you have. It's out there.