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Adding 2nd generation functionality to your website

By Michael Cohen and Ben Lichtenstein

Over the past few years there has been a push amongst health care organizations, including physician practices, to establish a presence on the Internet. Most physician practices’ initial website is static content about the practice, physicians and the office. The site is often produced by taking an organization’s printed brochure and translating it directly to the Web without regard for the possibilities of the new medium. The goal is often to build a website and keep up with other practices, not to create a competitive advantage or generate additional revenue. The site is the replication of information that is currently maintained in paper brochures.

Many of the sites have been up for a year or more and organizations are looking to evolve their sites. Following the lead of hospitals, physician groups are adding more dynamic content and interactivity to their sites. While the potential functionality to be added is limitless, there are several enhancements that provide a balance between the ease of implementation and expected benefits.

Access to Health Care Content

The Internet has enabled patients and consumers to gain access to a tremendous amount of health information. One of the most common uses of the Internet is to look up information on a medical condition. A recent survey conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 55% of Internet users have used the Web to retrieve health or medical information. Physicians, hospitals, payers and e-Health portal companies or content providers have provided the information available on the Internet. The goal of these organizations is to position themselves to be the trusted provider of health care information. By delivering valuable interactive information and resources to the community, physicians can encourage repeat visits to the site and develop/enhance their relationship with patients and consumers. Offering this content can help make a practice an important online resource in its community.

Most practice web sites containing medical content include a combination of information from third parties and content created internally. The objectives and financial resources of an organization determine the appropriate balance. The method for providing content should be determined in the strategic planning phase and targeted to specific audience(s). The intended audience for the site also determines the balance, whether it is for physicians, or current or potential patients.

Most organizations that elect to add condition or disease-specific information to their site contract with a health care Internet portal company that offers these services. This allows the site to be dynamic, having regularly updated content. They have determined in order to provide timely and meaningful content they are better served by outsourcing this responsibility. There are many companies that will take over responsibility for updating and organizing the information in a meaningful and easy to navigate manner. The companies provide content that they develop internally and information that is provided by respected sources such as the New England Journal of Medicine.

There are several technical models for adding third-party content to your site based upon the amount of integration desired. The easiest to implement is adding an icon that will navigate the user to the content provider’s site. Once at the content provider’s site, there may be no way to get back to other sections of the website, except via the “Back” button. A slightly more integrated method is to develop the website using frames, therefore having a consistent header across the pages from the content provider and the practice. The site will have a consistent look and feel, and it will be easy to navigate back to other sections of the practice’s site using the common header.

The most integrated method is to bring content into the site using Extensible Markup Language (XML) and formatting the data for presentation using Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL). This allows information to be added throughout the site and be easily updated by a content provider. As the content becomes more integrated, so does the complexity and technical skills required to implement and maintain the feeds of information. In addition, the cost increases with the amount of integration desired.

Another Tool for Recruitment

Your website will not replace existing methods for recruitment, but can enhance the identification of qualified candidates and their initial impression of your organization. The functionality available can range from posting general employment information or open positions to the ability to submit a resume or application online.

The first step can be to provide generic recruiting information about the practice including an overview of the environment and benefits. This is intended to provide prospective employees with a summary of the practice and why they would want to work there. Many sites also include a list of open positions with a summary of the responsibilities, and minimum education and training requirements of the position. The positions can be presented by job categories or be searchable to enhance the users experience. New jobs can be highlighted so frequent visitors will not be required to continuously look through the same postings. The most straightforward method for initiating the hiring process is to provide prospective employees a contact telephone number or e-mail address to be utilized to find out more information.

Practices can add the ability to apply for a position online. This functionality can be added if it is determined that the site and more specifically, the employment section is receiving significant traffic. This will ensure that these investments will achieve the desired returns. The site can contain a basic application form that asks for general information and description of such things as experience, skills and education. At the end there can be an option to mail or fax a resume, followed by the pertinent contact information. The ability to file an application online represents the next level of interaction in recruiting on the Internet.

Practices can add the ability for prospective employees to submit a resume online with the application. While this provides a more cohesive recruitment process, it does prevent a greater technological challenge.

Online Retail

By 2004, consumers will spend $22 billion annually for health care products and services over the Internet, predicts Forrester Research, Inc. Studies have found that consumers will want to visit health websites that they trust, and who better to trust than their own physicians and physician practices? Physicians have a local presence, and an edge over national competitors that their patients might not trust as much as their own local doctor.

Some physicians and physician practices are becoming retailers purely as a customer service to build loyalty and good will with their patients. Long term, they are hopeful that online sales will eventually generate a profit. Items that are currently being sold online include books, durable medical equipment, home health aids, over-the-counter-medications, vitamins and books.

Before attempting to sell products and services make sure that your website has sufficient patient traffic. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) should be able to provide statistics on this. Start off small and add more products and features to your site over time. Check to make sure that your ISP has the ability to secure online transactions or find out your IS department’s capabilities.

Combining looking up health care content and online retail is one strategy for selling products online. When a patient looks up a medical condition, for example shoulder pain, next to that information there could be a couple of over-the-counter products that your office recommends for alleviating shoulder pain.

There are initial start-up costs involved in setting up your online store. Enabling online transactions could get costly and it is very important that your practice is committed to this endeavor as a long-term strategy. If you are not sure that an online retail store is for your practice, there are alternatives. Your website could offer links to e-retailers that offer products that you recommend. Partnering with online stores is less of a risk than going out on your own. Some retailers will even offer a percentage of sales to your office like Amazon.com.

As a provider that bills Federal programs for services rendered, it is important that the practice consults with their legal counsel before beginning to sell products online. There may be restrictions on what a practice can bill insurances for and required notification to prospective purchasers.

The Internet makes a lot of sense for some physicians and physician practices. Consumers will utilize a website that plays a trusted advisory role in their community and that offers approved products and services. Adding an online retail store as part of your second-generation functionality strategy to your existing website can garner rewards, both economically and in terms of allegiance.

Getting Started

Practices should develop a strategic plan before they begin development. The outcome of the planning effort will be an overall vision on how the practice can use the Internet and a list of specific functionality that is prioritized. Planning before any investments are made to a website, will help to assure that the maximum benefit and return are achieved.

New functionality can be implemented in phases to assure a smooth integration into practice operations and that enhancements are aligned with website utilization. Unlike the presentation of static information about a practice, the functionality described in this article will require the development of new business processes.

Processes will need to be established to complete the interactions initiated via the website. If a prospective employee submits a resume online, policies will need to be established to acknowledge receipt and process accordingly. In addition, phasing in functionality will assure that investments are consistent with site utilization. For example, a practice can start by listing open positions on their site. After monitoring traffic for a few months and it is determined that a significant number of applicants are submitting their resumes for positions found online, the practice can add the ability to submit a resume online. If this section does not receive much traffic, the practice can continue to post positions online, but make investments in other sections.

The impact that the Internet will have on medical practices will continue to increase. Goals of the sites may include the following:

  • Improve business processes.
  • Differentiate from other practices.
  • Generate new revenue opportunities.

After the goals are determined, an actionable strategy can be created that addresses not only the technologies implemented but also the business and clinical processes employed by the practice. The development of a strategy and a practice’s website is an evolving process. Ongoing monitoring and enhancements will assure that the intended benefits are achieved.

Michael Cohen and Ben Lichtenstein are in the Health care Practice of Idea Integration, a leading e-business solutions provider located in Plymouth Meeting, PA.

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