By Robert B. Connelly
The Information Superhighway is ready and able to deliver your message to thousands of people, including your current and potential new patients. Your primary vehicle on the World Wide Web (WWW, or web)—that section of cyberspace most people associate with the Internet—is your website.
If you do not already have a website, establish one. If you have the opportunity to post multiple websites, take it. If you already have a website but it includes little or nothing more than your name, practice address, hours, and CV, develop it
Make your website easy to find. Register with as many search engines as you can. Make hyperlinking sites work for you. Make your site one that your patients will bookmark and visit again and again. Make it user-friendly and easy to navigate.
Internet competition for patients is starting to intensify. Medical practices that start using the Internet early and use it well will find it to be a marketing tool like no other. Others will suffer the consequences of “too little, too late.”
The Internet is always accessible, easily updated or altered, interactive, and can use animation, sound and moving images. The Internet is expanding daily. E-commerce is booming. Within a few years, almost everybody will have a personal computer or have access to one.
First, have a website. Physician affiliation organizations such as IPAs often provide member physicians or practices with free websites or website pages. Your hospital may offer a similar service. So might your state or local medical society.
If you are offered a website or web page, take it. These tend to be low-cost or no-cost ways to get your name on the Internet. Free sites typically include little more than your name; your practice’s name, address, and other contact information; your specialty or subspecialty; perhaps a list of services; and possibly your (often substantially shortened) CV.
Further, if your website is hosted by a larger organization, it may well be difficult for your patients to find. Typically, the information seeker will need to travel several levels into a hierarchically organized site to find information about a specific physician or practice.
Marketing by Website
To make your website a valuable marketing tool, it must be yours. Take any free site(s) you are offered, but also establish your own, and make it useful. Having your own website may be a disservice if it is only there to let other (e.g., referring) physicians know that your practice exists, just a copy of the ad you placed in your local telephone directory or boring, user-unfriendly, or rarely changed.
Focus on your current patients, possible new patients and caregivers. Caregivers are those people who provide day-to-day care for patients and plan enrollees and make decisions about who their health care providers are. For example, parents of young children and adult children of the elderly are caregivers.
Communicate effectively with these audiences and potential audiences. Those who are searching on the Internet will expect the following of your site: a substantial amount of information, good design and frequent updates and alterations.
Use your website to state your medical practice philosophies dealing with medical care, patient care and customer service. Describe the services you offer. List the health plans with which you participate. If yours is a group practice, include information about each of your physicians. Include data that patients will want to know, such as specialty, subspecialty or area of focus; highlights of your training and services offered.
If you have published any papers, have them rewritten in plain, simple English, free of as much medical jargon as possible. If necessary, explain any terms readers may need to understand. Develop a glossary. With permission to use copyrighted material, post papers on your website for other physicians to read. If these are posted on other sites by entities that hold the copyright, establish (with permission) hyperlinks for them. Or simply post the summaries with citations.
Publish events that patients, caregivers and other physicians want to know about, such as the addition of a new physician, seminars and conferences at which you will be presenting, the departure of a retiring physician, the addition of new services or coverage, the opening of a new facility, your participation in new health plans and the merger with or acquisition of another practice.
Provide timely medical information. For example, an ophthalmic practice may want to inform patients about a new laser procedure, an orthopedic practice may want to tell patients about a new arthroscopic technique, or a pediatric practice may want to advise parents about a new vaccine.
Provide directions to your office. Many services to which you can link your site provide on-line maps and generate driving directions from anywhere to your front door.
Tell your patients when you will be offering new services, how much they will cost, and how they are being covered by health plans. Tell your patients which of your doctors is qualified or is becoming qualified to provide these new services to them.
If your practice is offering complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) services (such as chiropractic, neuropathy, holistic medicine, acupuncture, yoga and massage therapy), make sure your website has this information.
CAM consumers often surf the Internet to find providers and information. This area of non-traditional medicine is largely unregulated, and there is a lot of misinformation available. Thus, even if you are not providing the actual CAM services, providing accurate information about CAM services will benefit your patients. In turn, providing necessary information and guidance is an excellent marketing tool.
Keep your website seasonal. For example, if summer is coming, warn your website visitors about Lyme disease and ticks. If fall is approaching, warn about influenza. If spring is around the corner, start posting allergy advisories and pollen/air quality reports. If winter is on its way, post materials about heart attacks and muscle problems associated with shoveling snow. Focus on those seasonal elements that your practice diagnoses and treats.
If you have one, post your newsletter on your website.
Design your website to be user-friendly, interactive and attractive. Organize it so that navigation is easy. Establish clearly defined bookmarks and hyperlinks. Make your backgrounds interesting but easy on the eyes. Animated type and graphics can make a website interesting, but an animation overdose can decrease the number of return visits.
Interactive websites are rapidly increasing in popularity. Some practices offer on-line patient appointment scheduling. Here, patients can access your on-line schedule, find out which physicians are available and request a time slot on a specific day. Your practice will be able to confirm the appointment or suggest an alternative immediately on line, by e-mail or with a phone call at your staff’s convenience.
With an interactive website, your practice can even have patients fill out registration forms on-line from home, in advance of the office visit. These forms allow patients or caregivers to go on line to register, furnish insurance data and even provide information about history, symptoms and other medical chart items. Patients with non-traditional work schedules might find this option attractive. So might others, such as parents of young children, who can fill out a pediatrician’s forms at home when the baby is asleep rather than in the office when the baby is restless.
Consider establishing a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) section. You can post common questions and the answers to them. For example, “Q: My child is 24 months old; what immunizations should be administered?”
“A: For a two-year old child, our practice recommends, in accordance with American Association of Pediatrics guidelines…”
You will be faced with many decisions about your website, such as what information to present, how the information is presented (in what order or hierarchy, as well as how it looks), how the site is arranged and the traffic flows, what the graphic content should be (including pictures of the physicians and/or non-physicians, pictures of the office and/or of equipment, buttons, banners and other website-specific devices) and who should administer the site and/or serve as liaison with your off-site website designer/host.
When you establish your website, make it easy to find. It will cost you money to establish and maintain your website. If you have little or no web traffic, you may not realize a significant return on your investment.
Notify all the search engines and directories possible. Link your site to all the medical/health care directories and search engines you can find. Consider ACHOO <http://www.achoo.com>, The Physician Referral Network <http://www.physicianfind.com>, The Physician’s Practice <http://www.physicianpractice.com>, and AMA Physician Select <http://www.ama-assn.org/aps/amahg.htm>. There are other local, state and regional entities, as well.
Send electronic press releases to Internet agencies and to local newspapers. Announce your site in your newsletter. Post notices and reprints of any stories from local newspapers in your office. Contact your patients by phone or direct mail.
Link your website (with permission; establish two-way links whenever possible) with other useful sites, such as the AMA, your local, state and regional medical societies, and your specialty and subspecialty medical societies.
Consider linking your site with medical libraries, your hospitals and other sites you discover that have information your website visitors can use, particularly if that information ties in with services you provide. For example, if you have a large Medicare population, consider providing links to the Health Care Financing Administration <http://www.hcfa.gov> and even the American Association of Retired Persons <http://www.aarp.org>.
Once your site is established, be certain to update it no less frequently than monthly. Notify visitors of any changes with short indicators on your front page, such as: “Our practice is bringing on board a new associate. To learn a little about Dr. A, or to leave a question for him/her, click here.”
Update your site whenever you have news, even if you only updated it the day before. If your site becomes stale and your news becomes old, repeat visits will decrease.
If you are in solo practice, you may not have time, expertise or desire to design, maintain and update your website. But you should have one anyway. Group practices will probably have someone on board—perhaps the managing physician—who can devote the time and energy to the project. Larger groups will have business administrators and/or information specialists to function as “webmasters.”
In any group setting, the practice’s physician co-owners will need to reach consensus about your website’s design, content and administration.
Whatever your situation, you can and perhaps should outsource your website. Hire a website designer. Rely on your web “host” for updates. If you maintain the site in-house, at least hire a professional to check your information for accuracy.
In any situation, have an attorney advise you about copyright matters, protecting patient confidentiality and steering clear of practicing medicine on your website. Have the necessary disclaimer(s) clearly visible on your website.
You can use your website to survey patient and/or referring physician satisfaction with your website on-line. When patients visit, ask them if they have e-mail capacity. Get the e-mail addresses of those who do. E-mail the survey form, have them complete it and e-mail it back to you. Phone your referring physicians and arrange surveying by e-mail.
If your data are already on the computer, they will probably be much easier to collate and analyze. Further, your respondents will be using the computer rather than filling out a paper form. Most people who have computers prefer to use them rather than paper, and they tend to save time. Thus, their satisfaction with your practice increases.
You can also use e-mail to send patient reports to referring/referral physicians. Just be certain to protect patient confidentiality. If your website has sturdy firewalls (electronic security protections) and your personnel all understand and respect your patients’ confidentiality, this should be no problem. In fact, e-mail may, in some ways, be more secure than facsimile transmission (faxing) or surface mailing.
Many local Internet hosts/servers/entities have medicine/health/physician sections and programs. Some of these ask local physicians to answer questions posted by visitors on their electronic “bulletin boards” or to “chat” (communicate electronically, in real time, via computer, frequently using the keyboard to type dialogue) with Internet surfers, typically for an hour or two at a time during a period established in advance, and perhaps regularly. Consider volunteering your services as their expert.
Also consider offering these services on your website. Particularly if you have a specialty practice, you may want to establish a virtual support group for your patients and others with similar medical problems.
Be certain you have an attorney advise you before you answer bulletin board questions or during chat sessions, whether you are doing it for your website or some other entity’s.
The Internet is a remarkably effective mass communications tool. If you use it correctly, the website you establish on the Internet can be an extremely effective marketing tool for your medical practice. It will cost you time, energy and money to establish and maintain your website. But effective marketing always takes time, energy and money to implement.
The Internet is booming, the technology is advancing and you can entirely outsource the project. This is the growth industry of the early 21st century and you can take advantage of it now. Many practices already are on the Internet; they have the advantage.
Get the same advantage. Use your website to market your medical practice. Do it early and do it right.
Robert B. Connelly, is a consultant with The Health Care Group, Inc., a national medical practice consultation firm based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.