Will beacon technology ever be a good fit for healthcare?

In theory, healthcare marketers love the idea of beacons. In practice? Well, nobody's sure whether patients and physicians will be wowed by their utility or turned off by their invasiveness. Barbara Peck offers a Beacons 101 primer.

Will beacon technology ever be a good fit for healthcare?

If the word beacon means little to you, you're not alone. While the term might be familiar to retail-minded healthcare marketers, on average, patients and physicians haven't even heard of it. But that's about to change.

Why, you ask? Because Apple has placed its considerable marketing and technological savvy behind its iBeacon offering. Last year, Apple introduced iBeacon technology as part of its iOS7 on all new iPhones and iPads. Unless your phone predates the iPhone 4S, you already have the capability to accept iBeacons. In fact, any device that has Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE), including Android models, can accept iBeacons.

But despite the excitement among technology wonks (chronicled breathlessly in blog posts such as "How Beacons are Changing the Shopping Experience"), their full potential hasn't even begun to be realized, especially in healthcare. So why haven't beacons taken off like a rocket?

It's worth explaining how these things work to begin with. It starts with a tiny radio transmitter that can fit in the palm of one's hand. Beacons are so small, in fact, they can be tucked under a store counter, attached to a piece of equipment or hidden in a phone booth. The signals they send out can trigger actions within apps installed on any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone that comes within the designated area.

Beacons can be adjusted to cover a wide range of prespecified distances. They can be set up to work from as near as 12 inches and from as far away as 55 yards. Nor do beacons need a Wi-Fi connection to become operational. Beacons can send personalized, location-specific content to a consumer's or patient's smartphone—but only if that person has downloaded the relevant app and opted in by allowing the app to access the phone's location data.

Apple established a retail blueprint for iBeacons last December by installing them in all its US retail stores. The beacons help customers find in-store assistance, alert them if their iPhone is eligible for an upgrade and push information about special Apple deals.

So far, other retail applications have mainly been pilot projects, including ones at selected Macy's and Safeway grocery stores. Target announced the launch of beacons in stores countrywide, no doubt to take advantage of the mapping function on its updated, beacon-enabled app. By using beacons placed throughout the stores, the app can pinpoint a shopper's location and create a shopping path that steers him or her to all the items on a presaved list. 

Beacons have made inroads in the outdoor/event space as well. Last spring, they were installed at 20 of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. Fans got a welcome message when they checked in and were notified of discounts at the concession stands. And at the Coachella music festival, in April, beacons alerted fans to unpublicized gigs and interviews. 

Healthcare shows interest
A year ago, Jason Smith, managing director of Boston-based digital firm OHO Interactive, posted a story speculating on the many ways hospitals could use beacon technology. For instance, as a doctor walked into a patient's room, a beacon could load the patient's medical records onto the doctor's iPad—and remove those records as soon as the doctor left the room. Beacons attached to mobile hospital devices would allow equipment to be tracked and located in an emergency. Beacons could also help patients and visitors find their way through the typical hospital's maze of corridors, locating users and guiding them on a map.

Today, however, Smith is less sanguine that beacons can function like an indoor GPS system within the hospital environment. "It turns out that the positioning isn't as accurate as we'd like, due to perimeters and variations in signal strength," he says. 

Smith sees more immediate potential for beacons in doctors' offices, where they can help streamline processes by welcoming patients as they walk in, by notifying them about any documents that need to be filled out and by providing basic directions regarding upcoming tests or procedures. 

Patrick Carne, general manager of Melbourne, Australia–based digital agency Lighthouse, largely agrees with Smith. While he notes that "it's still early days" for beacons in Australia, he sees the potential for beacons to improve processes in hospitals and home care. "You could place a beacon at a patient's home. When the doctor or nurse pay a visit, they'd get all the information they need as they arrive. A beacon could also help track visits, making sure the patient is getting enough attention," he explains.

Joe Arcuri, VP of user experience at Palio + Ignite, acknowledges that beacons have been slow to catch on in the healthcare field. But on the other hand, he adds, beacons "really come in handy in situations like conventions. As attendees enter a convention hall, for example, they can get an alert that tells them where to register and can get help navigating the hall. At trade shows you can use beacons to set up a scavenger hunt and let users search out clues and get alerts."

Keeping it private
Obviously, beacon technology presents plenty of retail opportunities within the pharmacy business. Walgreen launched a pilot program last spring by installing beacons in 10 of its Duane Reade stores in New York City. The beacons might deliver digital reminders to refill prescriptions, provide point-of-purchase product reviews or simply call up coupons a customer has saved. However, company spokesperson Phil Caruso cautions that Walgreen's use of beacons is still in the testing stages. 

When it comes to healthcare, of course, strict privacy regulations create potential roadblocks. As Smith notes, "The use of beacons can create problems for the same reason that doctors don't generally send emails: They're not secure. Let's say you received a push notification in a hospital or doctor's office, then a friend or coworker later picked up your phone and asked, ‘Oh, why'd you get a message from Lakeshore General?' "

Even for non-pharma retail, consumers have expressed concerns about privacy and potentially being hit with a barrage of unsolicited messages. But that can go both ways, as Arcuri points out: Some users like having brands help them out throughout their day. Those who don't can simply turn the notifications off. 

Some of the privacy worries are far removed from the usual ones that plague healthcare. Remember those phone booths we mentioned? In October, it was discovered that a company called Titan had installed a network of beacons in pay phone kiosks around midtown Manhattan. While Titan had received permission from a city agency, the public had not been informed. There didn't seem to be any nefarious plan afoot—the beacons were purportedly installed to keep track of ads in the kiosks—but many felt that the beacon use should have been more transparent.

In any event, marketers within and outside healthcare might soon want to start paying closer attention. Study results published in summer 2014 presented solid evidence that beacons can prompt a huge jump in the use of an app. InMarket, a company that builds beacon-based ad platforms, studied 25,000 shoppers in a 30-day period and reported that interactions with advertised products increased by 19 times for users who received a beacon message. The company's research also demonstrated that in-store app usage was 16.5 times greater for users who received a beacon message than among shoppers who had not. InMarket research showed as well that shoppers who received a beacon message were 6.4 times more likely to keep and use an app on their phone versus those who didn't.

Clearly, there's a lot to be gained by organizations within the healthcare ecosystem that master the use of location-based beacon marketing. Expect the industry to begin to pay close attention to experimentation by early movers in the months ahead. 

This story originally appeared in MM&M.

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