Coming to a screen near you: more screens?

11 minute read

Even if you’re a cynic and born in the 60s, it might be time to revisit the idea of a waiting-room screen


Even if you’re a cynic and born in the 60s, it might be time to revisit the idea of a waiting-room screen

Being a child of the 60s, I’m pretty sure I could live with fewer screens in my life. As things stand, I own six screens, three of them mobile.

So what’s with everyone trying to get me to watch another six or so during my working and travelling day? Who thinks I have the time or inclination to consume even more screen-based fare during an already packed day?

I’m thinking this as I stand at platform 5 of Town Hall station in Sydney, transfixed by the giant TV screen across the tracks where a dad is drowning with his kid in his arms in the middle of the ocean.

Fortunately, the kindly and wise gents who run banks foresee such dire situations and their helicopter turns up to rescue them – even though they don’t bank with that institution. Phew, I can go back to my mobile now.

I remember clearly the first time I saw a screen next to the lifts in my old office tower. I was furious. I remember thinking even then I had too many screens in my life, what could they possibly offer, and why were my staff and I (we paid good money to lease floors in the building) being monetised and not getting a cut?

I also remember coming to love these screens quite quickly for their simplicity in helping keep me updated during the day – the weather, the one-day cricket score, Kevin Rudd being dumped. They worked for me.

Last week, the company that put those screens in, and which was a start-up when I first encountered them about seven years ago, was sold for nearly $70 million. Apparently, the screen business is a pretty good one.

The same thoughts struck me recently during a visit to a GP clinic. I was at the time writhing with the pain of what turned out to be a bursting appendix, and the only thing that distracted me from the pain was a big flat screen TV telling me that, if I wanted, I could see a bulk-billing cardiologist on Tuesdays in the Chatswood office of the group. Interesting, I thought, between bouts of agony and rigors.

So I’m willing to suggest that perhaps it’s not my old white male privilege (yes, I could have run a bank) to say how many screens anyone should watch and what they should watch on them. And that maybe, screens in GP waiting rooms might serve a useful purpose. Done the right way, patients might even like them.

If you don’t have a screen in your waiting room already, as a GP principal, you may find yourself in the minority in the not too distant future. Almost certainly you are going to get pitched the idea pretty soon.

The pitch will likely come from one of two groups battling it out for network screen supremacy in healthcare: Tonic Health Media (Tonic) and Medical Channel (Med Channel).

Following the acquisition by Med Channel a few weeks back of Community Network, there are estimated to be screens in nearly one-third of all GP waiting rooms in the country.

Eeewh, is my gut reaction. But I’m thinking of the days of Doctor TV in the 80s and 90s when chunky televisions ran VHS tapes on endless loops. They were ugly, the experience was depressing and the content was awful. I used to stick to my National Geographics and Readers Digests and ask the receptionist to turn the volume down.

These days, screens can be pretty sexy. Compelling even. The content can be fed live wirelessly, so there’s no endless loops. The technology is good, inexpensive and getting better. And the subject matter can even be interesting.

Little Girl Watching First Television, Retro Vintage Style
In the early days of Doctor TV, the experience was depressing and the content was pretty awful

Depending on your point of view, screens in waiting rooms, for so long an eyesore, may now be a good thing for your surgery. They may even be good for healthcare in general, if you believe some of the research around context-based health education of healthcare consumers.

If you’re like me though, you’ll still be very wary of the idea of a putting a screen in your waiting room. I was always told to read more books and watch less TV. How could screens be good for you or your patients?

As unseemly as the idea might feel, there is reasonably robust research showing that well-directed health education in the proximity of a doctor can lead to positive health outcomes for patients. So we’re not talking Netflix being screened (which is what I’d like).

Both Tonic and Med Channel tend to screen useful patient education information, Tonic a fair bit more than Med Channel and with audio, which Med Channel does not provide. But both providers understand how to get a patient’s attention in a manner that isn’t annoying (like Doctor TV used to be). None of that seems to be a bad thing.

So how can it be good for you as a doctor? Easy. And you’ll get this in the sales pitch so we might as well get this over and done with. As a part of your practice compliance program, having a systematic, integrated and professional approach to patient education in your surgery counts for a lot. Largely, these two screen vendors can get you most of the way to meeting these requirements.

What else? Well, the screens come with functionality that allows you to put your own content up so you can talk to your patient community. You can do all sorts of things with that – like let everyone know you have bulk-billing cardiologists in the next room, or more simply, remind your patients of your opening hours.

The screens are installed and maintained for free. That’s not such a bad deal, although if you’re like me in my old office tower, I think you should ask for a cut.

How do Tonic and Med Channel afford all this? The same way this magazine does. Advertising.

Eeewh! There we go again. Just like telly. Who wants their patients having to endure ads while they wait?

In the end, this will inform whether you choose to screen or not to screen. But both suppliers are acutely aware of not annoying your patients, so the ads are, at times, very subtle. And they are usually health oriented. No junk food ads, for instance.

I’m going to admit up front that I’m a little biased towards Tonic as a supplier. But not for reasons you should necessarily consider when making a logical and commercial choice – just because I’ve just always liked Dr Norman Swan, who is a founder and also has one of those seductive Scottish accents.

Apparently his reasons for starting Tonic, while obviously including making money, are also centred around empowering healthcare consumers. That’s not too far from what we’d like to do at The Medical Republic, though we are coming from a far more doctor-centred position.

Tonic’s Managing Director, Dr Matthew Cullen, and also a Tonic shareholder, puts it in clear terms. He says Tonic might be considered not as a media company, but as a healthcare company monetised via a media model. Improved community health is the major purpose of the business, he claims.

Another aspect of Tonic is it owns print-based media as well as digital, something that is close to my heart. Print, I’ve always believed, has its place even in a digital era, and will continue to do so. Part of Tonic’s network is the Info Med brochure business. While Tonic is adding in screens to the brochure boards, it isn’t getting rid of the brochures.

Tonic knows that print does something digital can’t, and the company values it.

So what about Med Channel? The Med Channel team seems to represent a group of consummate media, screen, consumer marketing and digital professionals. The team knows what it is doing, and you should expect it will do things well.

The different approaches to the businesses are reflected in their choices of managing director. Both MDs have great CVs, are very professional and very likeable. But they couldn’t be more different.

Naz Musa, the MD of Medical Channel, is a professional digital leader who has run a few digital companies overseas, including start-ups. He’s charming. A sales person, which he needs to be, and someone who gets new tech and consumer engagement.

The team behind him is put together very deliberately with the smooth and rapid development of a professional screen network in mind. The board includes the likes of Tony Faure, who has the distinction of being one of an exclusive clique who actually made money out of Yahoo. If you aren’t impressed by that, he has since led and helped lots of new media companies to success in Australia, including Junkee Media, a leading digital youth brand and oOh! Media, the fastest growing out of home media group in the country.

So Medical Channel isn’t likely to do a bad job.

Tonic, is one of those “by doctors, for doctors” type businesses, and has a heavy focus on great consumer health content. This will appeal so some. It has its own production house and does quality health content for all sorts of organisations, including the ABC.

It’s a fascinating choice. The hands-on doctor  and education elements of Tonic versus the digital screen “A team” of Med Channel. Both vying to capture your patients’ attention, imagination and time.

Remember the screen in Town Hall Station? I couldn’t resist.

All in all, my prediction is that screens will play a bigger and bigger role in most GP and allied health surgeries, whether we like it or not. Consumers like them. Consumers are patients and the media balance is tipping their way.

The other reason I predict the companies are going to grow significantly is that both Tonic and Med Channel have much bigger ideas in mind than just screens in waiting rooms. They see the waiting room has the unique opportunity of context. But it’s not enough. Both are moving aggressively to develop a mobile footprint.

They want to grab health consumer attention for longer and connect that attention to other services. I suspect they want to be at the centre of things by going mobile and leaving the waiting room with patients when they leave. It’s not a bad idea.

However, it does seem like this is what everyone is trying to do. The major patient management systems – Best Practice and Medical Director – will both offer mobile apps that engage with your patient after they leave the surgery, if you use cloud versions of their software.

This is part of an intense and interesting race to capture the patient as a healthcare consumer into a single brand. It focuses heavily around engagement via your waiting room and via your desktop, and soon to be on any device via the cloud. It gives you quite a bit of power moving forward if you think about it, and you should.

Others are trying to get into this race as well. Microsoft is rumoured to be launching something big in the space in Australia soon.

Backing a winner is potentially important for you, your surgery and your patients, although my guess is neither Tonic nor Med Channel will lose here. They may even merge one day. That would be a “close out” play. Apparently the companies have talked about it, but the philosophies of both organisations are still too far apart.

A couple of weeks back, the stakes in this race got really interesting when Med Channel announced they had obtained $25 million funding as a war chest for their bid to dominate this market. The amount raised a lot of eyebrows in health technology investment circles. The common question was: “what are they going to do with all that money?”

Watch this space, I guess.

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