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Constructing a physician Web site

By Barbara Sallo, RN, MBA

The US Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley reported at a recent meeting of the Information Technology Policy Council that when President Clinton took office, there were only 50 Websites, but that today 65,000 are being added every hour. He also shared with his audience that last year 100 million people logged onto the Internet, up from 40 million the year before.

Do you visit Websites? Do you use e-mail? Do you know some physicians and practices that have a Website? Do you think you might need one? If you answered yes to the last few questions, then this article may provide some of the information you will need to implement your decision to enter the world of cyberspace, or as Secretary Daley calls it, “The Emerging Digital Economy.”

Health care has always been characterized as being provided on a regional basis. As such, it may not be important to you to have a way to connect or draw patients from throughout the world, but it would be beneficial to have a method to communicate with over half of all the patients and potential patients in your service area. The opportunity for patients to be able to access information about you, to ask questions, and even to schedule appointments is here and waiting for you to take advantage of it.

There has been a birth and growth of an entire industry that is dedicated to supporting the launch of the millions of Web pages on the Internet. So how do you decide what is the best route for your small to medium size practice?

Computer and Communications

If you have accessed this on your computer, you have the necessary hardware and software to connect to the Internet. If you don’t have access, you will need:

  • Computer: 486/Pentium.
  • Modem: 14.4 or faster.
  • Phone line: Ordinary line, dedicated preferable.
  • Communications software/dialer program.
  • GUI (Windows or Mac).
  • WWW & E-mail software.
  • Internet Service Provider (ISP) Account.
  • Telephone Service

Ideas and Design

Your initial consideration is to decide how to present your ideas and information. This should include what you want to tell patients about your practice, what information you want to communicate, who is your audience, and what image you want to project. Focus on what you liked about some sites you have visited. Regardless of whether you outsource services or build your own pages, it is essential to have a well thought out purpose.

Create Your Content

There has been an incredible proliferation of information and services on how to build a Website on the Internet and in print, but the choice is not as simple as build or buy. A good Website includes attractive art, dynamic links to other sites, scrolling text, tables, forms, and simple animations. You may want to find a vendor to contract with for all services or you may want to build all or part of the pieces on your own. Either way, it is a good idea to understand the elements of creating, implementing, maintaining and monitoring a Website.

Develop the pages that will form your site. HTML is the hypertext markup language programming that documents are converted to for Web pages. It has been in use since 1990 but until recently has not been “user friendly.” A number of new software programs are available that have made this easier for the computer user. Information on these can be accessed on the Internet or in computer publications. A recent review indicated that the cost can range from $69 to $699. Some businesses that are providing multiple Internet services are making these tools available to their customers. One issue with the use of these programs is that the many browsers that read your pages may each read them differently. Ask before you buy!

The alternative to producing the pages yourself is to hire a design and development company. Find out which ones other site owners have used, what they received, how satisfied they are and what was the cost of the service. It does not hurt to become very knowledgeable about the process even if you have no ability or intent to build your site.

Register Your Site

If you are serious about running a Website, you have to get a domain name. A domain name identifies a particular site on the Web and is included in your URL, Uniform Resource Locator. In layman terms, it is your unique Web address on the Internet. By having a domain name, you gain a lot of respect from your patients and potential patients.

All domain names must be registered with InterNIC and end with “.com”, “.net” or “.org”. The number of URL endings may be increased in the future, but nothing final has been determined. Your practice, if it is a private professional corporation, will end with “.com”. There are dozens of companies on the Internet that will help you with the domain name registration process for a fee ranging from $50-$200. There are even companies who will do the same for you at no cost. The best way, however, is to let your Web hosting company do the registration for you.

The last I heard, domain names are being snapped up at a furious rate, over 10,000 per week. It may become more difficult to find a domain name that is memorable and relates to the subject matter of your site that hasn’t been taken yet. Another reason to move on this project.

Getting Your Pages on the Web

Once you have finished building your Web pages, you will need to post them to a Web server. A Web server is a program that stores and sends files; it is installed on a machine connected to the Internet. The server makes your Web pages available to the world, economically and immediately. It is not economically feasible to have your own server. Small to medium sized businesses access the Internet through a vendor.

In addition to an Internet connection via a Web server, server space, and a way to transfer files to the Web server site, other services you may want to purchase (or are included in your design and development contract) can include 24-hour monitoring, online technical support, page creation and traffic reporting. All of these are important and can make the difference in providing a professional and exciting site, so ask a lot of questions when you are researching a vendor.

Search Engines

While it is not technically necessary to register your Website with search engines, you can choose to speed up the process of being “found” by notifying engines to visit and to index your site. The search engines actually “crawl” the entire World Wide Web constantly, and index all of the sites found there.

Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, Alta Vista and Webcrawler are examples of search engines. Yahoo! and The Yellow Pages are not search engines. They are directories. A directory requires that you tell it the categories under which your site should be catalogued, giving a broader approach to how your site is listed. Register with all appropriate directories.

The number of search engines/directories to register with is a personal preference. The large engines are accessed most frequently by Internet users and satisfy most needs. If you are in a niche area of medicine that has a dedicated search engine, you should consider registering.

Registration can be done by you with each search engine or directory. Your design and development company will usually include this in their basic service, or you can find services on the Internet that will register you with hundreds of search engines for fees in the range of $49 to $99. Your individual needs should drive this decision.

Receiving Information From Your Website

In addition to publishing information about your organization, you can use a Website to receive information and feedback from and about your Website visitors. For example, this information can be e-mail messages with questions, requests or survey data for which you can design a variety of online forms. Also, you can receive such information as how many visitors your site has received, which pages of the site they visited, which browser they use and where in the country or globe they are located.

There are a number of options available to access this information. You can purchase this type of service from a dedicated provider of Internet statistics. This type of reporting can be included in your design and development package.

After reviewing and digesting all of the information on the processes involved with Website production, should you build or buy? Websites require a unique blend of both technical and design skills. A Website should never be specific to only one browser, and remember: designing for ease of use and readability is significantly different for online media than for print-based media.

If you have the capability to build a site, there are a number of tools to access. If you need help, shop around. There are many firms offering Internet services. You should look for companies with the experience and expertise to design functional, easy-to-use sites. Go look at their results and ask their clients about them.

Websites today are better than ever and “Webbing it” yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you do it all. No matter what you decide, learn as much as you can because the results mean more to you than anyone else. Think of this process as learning to drive before buying a car. Go out and surf.

See you on the Web!

Barbara Sallo is a principal of Health Care Visions, a consulting firm which specializes in business management in clinical settings. Website: http://www.hcvconsult.com

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