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MediNet offers a healing dose of Internet to patients

JACKSON — A few years ago, Bill Huff found himself in a position familiar to most — anxiously waiting by the side of a loved one’s hospital bed. His wife had experienced a complicated childbirth, and all she asked was that he be there for her throughout her hospital stay. However, she didn’t want to necessarily know he was there.

“She requested no television, no phone calls, no lights,” Huff said with a laugh. “Anybody who knows my personality knows that I don’t flourish in that kind of environment.” He added on a serious note, “Physicians and nurses know how important a patient’s mental state is to the healing process. Our service offers peace of mind to both the patients and their families.”

When Huff left the hospital, he not only had a new baby, but an infant of an idea that has grown into a seven-state business — MediNet Systems. However, the concept of wireless Internet connectivity in hospitals was not Huff’s first foray into medical products or the Internet.

A 1991 general business graduate from the University of Mississippi, Huff launched Southeastern Medical Supply Inc. (SMS) in 1994, a specialty medical rehabilitation equipment company. SMS was the first company to introduce a low air loss therapy bed that was designed to assist in the reduction of bedsores and aid in wound care.

SMS was successful. But Huff came to realize that it would be more successful and add to the company’s bottom line if it shipped straight from the manufacturer. In 1986, Integrated Therapy Products Inc. (ITP), a medical manufacturing company, opened its doors.

ITP’s first product was the Aeromat, a portable computer-controlled mattress system installable on any standard hospital bed. ITP successfully sold and rented equipment around the world, aided by a seemingly innocent suggestion from a company engineer.

“You have to remember, this was before the Internet as we know it,” Huff said. “The engineer said, ‘Why don’t you let me put our product on this computer bulletin board I have been using?’ It was amazing. We couldn’t even put up any pictures. But we got inquiries from the Netherlands, China. We got an inquiry in 1990 from a hospital in Saudi Arabia that was treating burned pilots from the Gulf War. It was incredible.”

In 1996, Huff licensed Aeromat’s design and manufacturing rights to another medical equipment company and merged the remaining assets of ITP into SMS. (SMS, d/b/a ITP, operates from a 15,000-square-foot facility in Jackson.) With no manufacturing, Huff found himself unchallenged by the day-to-day distribution operations of SMS. This, coupled with the Internet explosion and the aforementioned childbirth, led to MediNet.

“I was looking for something fun and enjoyable, something that would be appreciated by our customers, that was not highly competitive and did not required Medicare or federal funding,” Huff said.

In January 2000, MediNet launched in Jackson at Baptist Medical Center. Huff estimates that more than 6,000 patients at Baptist have utilized the wireless Internet service, but that’s only a small fraction of its users. Not only is MediNet in River Oaks Hospital in Flowood, the service is available in hospitals in Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida. The company is preparing to launch in Texas and Alabama shortly. Two large purchasing organizations, representing approximately 1,800 hospitals each, have made inquiries, and the Health Care Association of New York has also showed interest in licensing the system to its 300 member hospitals.

The system provides wireless, high-speed Internet connectivity, and utilizes a touch screen called a “Web Pad.” MediNet’s “Patient Portal” offers e-mail, customizable links, more than 50 online games, news and events. Patients — and their families — can use the system to educate themselves on their health problem and learn more about their treatment.

Hospitals can use MediNet’s online analysis program to track usability, user demographics, define links or Citrix applications, send e-mail and build online educational material.

“The hospital pays for the system, but they don’t pass that cost on to the patients,” Huff explained. “They see it as a service to their patients. You know, in those times when you’re laying in a hospital bed, acts of kindness are not forgotten. You remember when someone did something nice for you.

“And it can be used as a marketing tool by the hospital. Patient e-mails are embedded on a page that offers information about the hospital. There’s also an option to click on the hospital foundation and make a donation to the hospital online.”

Huff said his expectations for MediNet have been more than exceeded, and he gave credit to his staff, which is now up to 20, not counting a sales force sprinkled around the country. He also gave special credit to two more important people.

“I really have to thank my wife and child,” he said. He added, “This is not only fun, but it’s rewarding, too. I get, on average, up to 20 e-mails a day from people thanking us for our service. It’s very fulfilling.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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