By Shardul Mehta
Do you have a web site for your practice? If no, why not? If yes, how effective is it?
If you don’t have a web site, you should. At a minimum, a web site can be an excellent communication and marketing tool for your practice. Your web site should provide contact information, such as address, phone number, and e-mail address (if you have one). If you have multiple offices, list each one. If possible, display a picture of your establishment on the home page. If you have separate numbers for billing inquiries and scheduling appointments, list them as well. List the names of the providers in your practice, and provide short bios for each one, being sure to include their credentials, specialty, and how long they have been practicing medicine. If possible, display a picture of each one (it’s always nice for patients to know with whom they would be dealing). Include a page that describes your practice’s philosophy and approach to medicine, as well as some history, such as how long your practice has been in business.
By providing even such basic information, you increase the credibility of your practice in the eyes of your patients. More and more, consumers across all industries are looking to make informed purchasing decisions, and they are proactively looking for information. As a result, consumers are more discerning about to whom they take their business. Health care is no exception. By having a web site, your practice comes across as professional and modern, and communicates to your patients that you are serious about taking care of their medical needs.
If your web site provides all this, you’re in pretty good shape. But providing information only scratches the surface of what you can do with your web site. You could provide services online that can save time for your staff and your patients. For example, you could provide new patient registration forms online in PDF format. Simply type them up in a word processing software, convert them to PDF format, and upload them to your web site. (Many popular word processing software programs, like Microsoft Word, allow you to save documents in PDF format.) New patients can download these forms, print them, and fill them out prior to arriving for their appointments, saving time in the office.
You can take a step further by adding more interactive features to your web site, such as the ability to request an appointment or a prescription refill. You could even add a blog. More on these in a moment.
Once you’ve figured out what information and services you would like to provide on your web site, you need to actually create it. How?
You could hire a web design firm or web developer to create your site. While this means outlaying some cash, you’ll get a professional looking web site in a shorter amount of time. A professional web developer would also be able to add some of the interactive features discussed above, should you choose to provide them.
For the more “hands on” among you, you could build it yourself. While this method is less costly, it means spending your own time designing and maintaining the site.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools you can use to help you build your web site. A search for “website building tool” in Google reveals plenty of options. Some provide templates that you can customize. Others are similar to design tools in which you can drag and drop and re-position text boxes, images and other shapes. If you are more technically inclined, you could learn HTML and other web programming languages, and write the code yourself.
Consider a Blog – which is short for “web log.” It’s like an online journal, and could be a great way to communicate with your patients. You could communicate ideas, news, and general medical and health related information. In fact, even businesses (including hospitals) are creating blogs for this very purpose. Having engaging content will bring patients back, not only to your web site, but also to your practice, because it builds credibility.
Keep in mind credibility is vital in a blog. Do not use your blog to sell or promote anything. Blog readers are incredibly savvy, and will abandon any blog they even remotely suspect as being “propaganda.”
Your web pages will need to reside on a computer called a web server. For this, it’s best to go with a web hosting provider. If you use a web design firm to develop your web site, they may be able to suggest a web hosting provider (or they may offer it themselves). Of course, you don’t have to accept their recommendation – you can choose any web hosting provider of your liking, and your web developer should be able to work with any web hosting provider you choose.
You could also check with your state Medical Society and Medical Group Management Association to see if they will host your web site for free or for a small fee. Alternatively, you could search for a web hosting provider on Google, or use a service like Yahoo! or Homestead. These services not only host your web site, but also provide templates and tools to create your web site.
If you are a do-it-yourself person, using an Internet Service Provider (ISP) will give you more control, but you must feel comfortable uploading and downloading files.
Regardless of how you create your site and where you host it, there are some critical considerations that can make or break the effectiveness of your web site.
Make your web site easy to navigate. Make sure your patients can get at the information they need quickly and easily, like contact information. Every page should have a link back to the home page, as well as a simple menu system to get to the main parts of your web site. Be sure to include a Site Map – an index of your web site – and make it easy to access it. Your web site reflects your practice. Your patients expect a professional web site, and if it is cumbersome or non-intuitive to navigate, it will turn visitors away.
Make your web site uncluttered. Ditch the fancy graphics! Visitors to your web site are not interested in fancy graphics or flashy multimedia. They want information. Some graphics are good, like an image of your building or pictures of your providers. But too many graphics are distracting, and especially for those who have dial-up Internet access, it slows down the speed at which they can download and view your site. (Yes, many people still use dial-up.)
Include downloadable and streaming audio and video only if it provides some definite value to your site, like providing important information. For example, you may want to impress upon visitors that your providers are experts in their specialty, so you could allow visitors to download a video of one of your providers being interviewed on a TV program.
Tone is important. While patients want to be reassured that your providers are Board certified and have the right credentials, don’t overload them with titles and memberships – it could be misconstrued as self-importance. Instead, make sure your web site communicates a philosophy of patient care, that your practice is concerned for its patients. This philosophy should be reflected not only in the content of your web site (the words on the pages), but also the overall look and feel of the web site. It builds trust. Be sure to strike the right tone. Tone counts.
Ignore these tips at your own peril. A web site that is difficult to navigate, is cluttered, or strikes the wrong tone communicates a lack of professionalism, and damages your credibility. Think about it: if your web site is a turn-off, they will be turned off against your practice, and they wouldn’t even have stepped through the door! If you take the time to properly plan and design it, your web site can be a great asset to your practice and your patients.
Shardul Mehta leads marketing & business development efforts at InfoQuest Systems, Inc., providers of medical billing solutions, including medical billing software, medical practice management software, HIPAA compliant solutions, and billing services.