Southern Cross prepares to extend e-commerce venture

Southern Cross's e-commerce Web site trial is progressing well and should be launched as a full Web-based service within six to 12 months. In the trial,15 customers and 15 employees are testing a Web site, which will allow users access to their own information - claims pending, limits reached, that sort of thing - as well as pointing them in the right direction to answer any medical questions they may have.

Southern Cross’s e-commerce Web site trial is progressing well and should be launched as a full Web-based service within six to 12 months.

“We are moving away from being simply an insurance company to becoming a health care provider,” says CIO Graeme Osborne.

He hopes to see Southern Cross integrate with the medical profession more thoroughly in the future, as well as with government agencies and customers.

“We have a trial under way at the moment that includes 15 customers and 15 employees.” These guinea-pigs are testing Southern Cross’ Web site, which will allow users access to their own information — claims pending, limits reached, that sort of thing — as well as pointing them in the right direction to answer any medical questions they may have.

“We have a health care line phone service at the moment that we would look to expand on to our Web site, but we don’t want to be continually re-inventing the wheel.” Osborne hopes Southern Cross will partner with one of the existing health information providers to answer customers’ questions and provide generic health information.

But that’s only the beginning. In the long term, Southern Cross hopes to pioneer an initiative that would see an end to customers having to pay for doctors’ visits and then claim the money back.

“Our trial doesn’t allow users to make claims online. We need to see receipts for services before paying out to claimants.” Osborne hopes that, eventually, medical professionals will be able to send billing information directly to Southern Cross, removing the patient from the process entirely.

“We would move that extra step and take it back to the source. Customers won’t be able to claim online, but the health care providers would.” Osborne says it’s not so much a technology issue as a business one.

“Doctors can be an independent lot. Co-ordinating them can be an issue.”

The Web site is being developed by Hamilton-based Webmasters, the company responsible for the Clear Net site and Telecom’s Yellow Pages. Management of the project within Southern Cross is controlled by a joint marketing and IT group, with the IT department running the site once it goes live.

“We don’t have the skills to develop a site and developers don’t want to stick around once it’s up and running, so we’re learning as we go.” Osborne says that learning how to manage your own Web site is one of the more important lessons for a company. All too often sites are left untended once the developers’ contract has finished.

E-commerce is just part of Southern Cross’ overall IT strategy.

As part of its five-year plan, Southern Cross has built a data warehouse, upgraded its call-centre facilities to allow faster access to customer information and is engaged in migrating its core systems from a legacy mainframe environment to a more open system.

The first business application to be run outside the mainframe is the company’s new Star Advantage loyalty programme, which sits on an Oracle database and requires daily record updates for Southern Cross’ 900,000 members.

Osborne finds himself in the unenviable position of being CIO to an insurance company and a string of hospitals, as well as overseeing Web development and hardware migration. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

“It’s a great opportunity to make decisions based on actual needs instead of having to fit in with a parent company or industry standard.”

As for the future, Southern Cross hopes to see the Web empowering a community-based approach to health care that includes follow-up consultations and such initiatives as tele-medicine and sending results to patients online.

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