Digital signage is starting to make headway in the healthcare sector, as hospitals and other facilities seek to bolster communications with patients, visitors and employees.
The market is still relatively small compared with more mature segments, such as digital signage for higher education and the broader corporate office market. But some channel companies now rank healthcare among their fastest-growing verticals. Healthcare digital signage systems are surfacing in lobbies, waiting areas, cafeterias and patient rooms, among other parts of a medical campus.
Digital signage touches so many groups within a healthcare organization that sometimes the biggest challenge is figuring out who is in charge.
managing director, Rise Vision Inc.
Audio-visual (AV) and interactive media specialists, as well as more general IT VARs and distributors, target digital signage in the healthcare space. While the pace of activity is picking up, channel executives acknowledge that it's still early days.
The healthcare digital signage market remains near its infancy, noted Craig Miller, vice president of Interactive Media, at Hammond Communications Group Inc., a digital signage and interactive media production company based in Lexington, Ky.
But Miller said he sees signs of maturation. Just a few years ago, Hammond needed to spend more time educating prospects on digital signage. But healthcare organizations are becoming more proactive.
"Today, you've got hospitals seeking out the technology," Miller said. "From our perspective, digital signage is being utilized pretty extensively in complementing their overall marketing campaigns to patients and visitors."
Hospitals are deploying digital signage systems in lobbies to communicate with audiences in various parts of a hospital -- a pediatrics department, for instance.
Some facilities, Miller said, are using digital signage for internal, corporate communications. The technology also makes an appearance in patient rooms, where interactive touchscreen displays provide content ranging from videos on medical procedures to doctor profiles. Hammond recently installed such a system for Holzer Health System in Ohio.
While the Holzer example involves 200 units, many hospital rollouts are on a much smaller scale. Miller said organizations often test limited installations to see how they work and fit into their processes.
"A great deal of hospitals have started to use digital signage, but haven't expanded it all the way out through their many campuses and lobbies," he said.
Ross McClymonds, vice president of global sales at Mvix, a Sterling, Va., company that provides high-definition digital signage hardware and software systems, also noted that healthcare providers tend to pursue small implementations. He said wayfinding directory boards and digital menus in hospital cafeterias are among the main applications at this point.
"Some hospitals are doing a little bit here and a little bit there, but not a full-scale ... implementation," McClymonds said.
Miller said part of the issue with broader deployments is the degree of sophistication involved. For example, he said, he sees potential for wayfinder applications in hospitals, but digital signage installations of that kind are not straightforward. The wayfinder displays require certain types of maps and graphics, may call for printing capabilities, and include the ability for patients and visitors to download directions to a smartphone.
"In some respects, it is a bigger and more complex project," Miller said.
Sean Matthews, president of Visix Inc., cited healthcare as the fastest-growing segment for the Atlanta-based company, which offers digital signage software, among other products. The top three markets are higher education, corporate and government. The company sells through AV integrators and IT VARs.
Visix focuses on hospitals, where Matthews cited patient and visitor information as a key segment. That category includes donor walls, which recognize a hospital's financial contributors. Matthews said that healthcare digital signage application has become popular, since hospitals can provide much more information than they could with a traditional donor wall. For instance, a donor wall can include photos of donors and URLs to their foundations.
Healthcare organizations, he said, are "looking to leverage touchscreens to help share stories about donors and gifts to make it more engaging than just a name on a plaque."
Digital signage can also play a role in emergency rooms. In this application, patients receive a four-digit code when they check in. Those codes are then shown on a display, giving patients estimated wait times for a room assignment, Visix's Matthews said. Hospitals may extend signage to patient rooms as well. In the emergency room, for instance, signs installed near the doors to patient rooms can display patient status information, visible to clinicians as they walk the corridors. Matthews said the cost of purchasing an integrated solution at each door is holding back greater adoption within hospital ER departments.
In addition, Matthews identified internal employee communications as another important segment for digital signage. But healthcare providers also look to digital signage for marketing outreach. Signs in lobbies and waiting areas can serve as a platform for promoting hospital services.
Brian Douglas, director of business development for government, education and medical markets at Carousel Industries, a managed services, consulting and integration company, said digital signage can help build awareness among patients for hospital services such as telemedicine. Carousel, an Exeter, R.I.-based company, offers a telemedicine solution, DistribuCare.
Channel companies looking for digital signage deals in healthcare may well encounter nontraditional buyers. The technology's role in public and employee communications means that a healthcare provider's marketing and communications department may champion a project.
Matthews said Visix targets marcom groups. He said a hospital's operating officer or perhaps a hospital group president or chairman may also get behind a digital signage effort.
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The IT department, however, will take a seat at the table when it's time to purchase equipment and deploy a solution.
"Generally speaking, the decision makers at large hospitals are usually the executive staff," said Keven Yue, senior market development executive at distributor Ingram Micro's ProAV/Digital Signage business unit. "Their directives are typically communicated to the ProAV reseller by their [IT] department, and the purchase orders come from the IT department as well."
"The IT department becomes very much involved because [digital signage] is going to end up on their networks," Matthews added.
Rise Vision's Cahoy noted that a healthcare provider may struggle with respect to which department should take point on a digital signage project.
"Is it the department looking to use the screen, is it purchasing, is it marketing/communications, is it IT, or is it facilities?" Cahoy asked. "Digital signage touches so many groups within a healthcare organization that sometimes the biggest challenge is figuring out who is in charge."
Integrators and resellers pursuing digital signage can expect to work with multiple technology components as well as stakeholders.
Digital signage solutions are built around a central content manager, which serves as the brains of the installation. The content manager schedules what information appears on a display and when. Miller said Hammond primarily uses Scala's enterprise-level content management software. He said most large customers install the content manager as a virtual appliance. A few host the virtual instance in the cloud, tapping providers such as Amazon Web Services, he added.
The content manager communicates to digital signage media players that, in turn, feed content to individual displays. Media players are small-form-factor devices that often run Windows but may also use Android. A media player may drive one or multiple displays.
Resellers face a number of product choices. Distributors can provide assistance in that regard. Ingram Micro, for one, can help channel partners identify client needs and create a bill of materials for a multivendor solution, Yue said. The distributor, he said, also provides tech support, business development and site surveys to support the reseller channel.
The next step for the channel partner is to implement the solution. But implementation isn't the only service a digital signage reseller can offer. They also have a chance to offer content creation services, particularly at the launch of a digital signage project, Visix's Matthews said.
The product and service opportunities appear set to expand.
"I think it is in a growth phase," Rise Vision's Cahoy said of digital signage in healthcare. "I feel as we have had several hospitals act as 'early adopters' over the past three to four years, and now there are some good examples out there to show it is working."