Eight months ago, we proposed using them on an ad, and our client had never seen one before. Today, you’re seeing them all over the place–those square Space Invader-looking boxes on ads and postcards and real estate signs and business cards. They’re called QR codes, and we imagine you’re going to be seeing a lot more of them until the next wave of technology brings something slicker to replace them.

QR stands for “quick response,” and that’s what these little boxes are all about. In essence, they’re bar codes that can be read with any mobile phone that has a QR code reader (which are free apps). Instead of requiring you to surf to a website or dial a phone number, the QR code connects you automatically. Just point your smartphone at a QR code, and you’re connected.

For example, if we wanted to show you some out-takes from an old TV session with Peyton Manning and Bill Estes, all you’d have to do is scan this code:

and you’d be enjoying all the hilarity without having to type a URL (http://www.welldonemarketing.com/2009/11/06/bill-estespeyton-manning-tvouttakes/) into your browser. Pretty slick, eh?

QR codes are free and easy to generate with any number of web-based programs. I used delivr to create the code above. It took less than a minute to copy the URL, find a generator, and create the code.

So how can you use QR codes in healthcare marketing? Let us count the ways.

1. Phone numbers. QR codes don’t have to connect with web addresses. They can also be linked with phone numbers, contact information, email addresses, and texts. A QR code can help you make an instant connection, without asking a prospective patient to remember or type a phone number.

2. Physician profiles. Want to give patients more information about your practice than can be contained in an ad? Link them to an online profile of your practice. Better yet, link them with a video of you telling them about yourself. This way, patients get to experience some of your personality and decide whether you’re the sort of doctor they’d like to see in person.

“A free first aid kit? Sign me up immediately.”

3. Special promotions. Do you have a free or low-cost health screening offer? Are you hosting seminars? Offering a gift in exchange for an email address? Connect directly with your Internet-based sign-up forms with a QR code.

4. Procedure and equipment videos. Patients want to know what they’re getting into before they agree to a procedure. Don’t just show them a picture of a new piece of high-tech equipment–show them how it works with a web video linked to a QR code. It turns a static ad into a multimedia experience.

5. Maps. Your QR code can link to a Google map–so your patients don’t have to type your address into a browser to find you.

6. Health tips. Link QR codes to microsites, blogs, videos, podcasts, and other Internet-based health information. Patients won’t have to search for the timely advice they need–they can just point their smartphones at your QR code and connect immediately.

7. Post-procedure instructions. A QR code can link patients with online documents that provide instructions on how to care for themselves after a procedure, physical therapy videos, and more.

8. Physician-to-physician communications. There’s no reason to use QR codes only for patient communications: docs use smartphones, too. You can use QR codes to provide contact information for referrals, show videos of procedures, and profile your practice.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here. But you get the idea. Within a handful of years, more people will access the Internet via mobile device than with a desktop or laptop computer. Making things easier for the mobile patient should be a priority now, and will only become more important in the years ahead.

And that’s the thing to remember about QR codes. They’re not magic. They shouldn’t replace your phone number and your address in your print ads. They’re not going to attract a lot more people to your website; in fact, we haven’t seen much overall increase in web traffic since we started using them. QR codes are merely a convenience for people with smartphones; if they were going to your site, anyway, the QR code makes it easier. And when people are on the go, especially in a marketplace as competitive as health care, easier is better.