A Web site refresh: E-enhancements help you communicate better

It's no longer enough to just have a Web site. Here are some ways your practice can maximize your online presence.

By John McCormack, amednews correspondent — Posted April 9, 2007

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Michael Rothschild, MD, is so enamored with computers and graphics that in addition to his New York-based medical practice, he runs a Web site design service. Yet, the pediatric otolaryngologist admits, he sometimes doesn't update his practice's site often enough.

"I really should redo the Park Avenue ENT site," he says. "It has been too long."

Dr. Rothschild is not alone. While just having a Web site was the goal a handful of years ago, physicians now are realizing those sites require nurturing.

Rosemary Nelson, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based physician practice management consultant, recommends that physicians re-evaluate their Web site goals, design and functions at least once a year.

"Doctors recommend an annual health maintenance exam for patients. They need to do the same thing for their practice. And during that exam, they need to figure out if their Web site is doing what they need it to do," Nelson says.

After conducting such check-ups, physicians could uncover the need to revamp the site's design, add more advanced interactive functions, or bolster its patient education components. The work can be worth it, as physicians are discovering that emerging technologies can take a Web site beyond just an electronic novelty and turn it into a key patient care and business tool.

Indeed, because Web sites have matured far beyond the informational sites so common during the Internet's infancy, experts say physicians now need to take a much more strategic approach.

Identify your goals

To start, doctors need to ask themselves what their sites will be used for. Patient education? Marketing? Patient communication? Workflow improvements?

To help get a handle on these goals and turn aspirations into reality, physicians should consider getting professional help, Dr. Rothschild says.

"I strongly recommend that Web design be completed by a Web professional," he says. "Most doctors wouldn't think of drawing up architectural plans for an office themselves. Similarly, they shouldn't think of designing their site without assistance from a professional."

That's a lesson learned by Physician Associates, a 65-doctor multispecialty practice with 12 locations in central Florida. The practice used in-house computer programmers to design its first Web site about six years ago. But when it decided on a revamp last year, it turned to a Tampa, Fla.-based advertising agency, says Chris Jordan, the practice's director of information systems. The agency "helped to make the site more attractive and had a lot of input into the design and feel of the site."

The practice's IT staff is responsible for maintenance and upkeep. "It's somewhat of a balancing act. We took as much knowledge [as we could] from the professional agency and learned from them, and we are now keeping the site going ourselves relying on what they have taught us," Jordan says.

Working with a professional designer, is important says Mark Epstein, MD, a plastic surgeon based in Stony Brook, N.Y.

"You can't just sit back and say, 'Do it.' You have to work hand in hand with the designer until the project is finished -- and the end result meets your expectations. It's just like building a new home with a contractor; you have to be involved to make sure all of the design, features and functions meet your goals," says Dr. Epstein, who hired Web site designers to create his site.

Looking good

Web professionals typically help doctors produce sites that look good -- a seemingly superficial but extremely vital component of any Web site effort, experts say. A site has to look good to hold a Web surfer's often-short attention span. Visitors typically devote only one or two seconds to a site before deciding to move on or delve deeper.

As a result, medical practices no longer can go with anything that even hints at homegrown, Dr. Rothschild says. And it takes more than simply converting the text of brochures to HTML -- hypertext mark-up language -- to achieve a professional look.

"Doctors should consider using impressive graphics or animation, anything that might draw prospective patients in," says John Pellman, president and CEO of MedNet Technologies in Elmont, N.Y., which designed Dr. Epstein's site.

Function as well as form

Although the look of a site is crucial, physicians are discovering that Web sites also can be used to streamline a number of administrative processes.

For example, Physician Associates added a member services section that lets patients create an account, and then log in to request appointments, order prescription refills or pay their bills.

"The ability to do all of this online pays off on both sides. The patients love it because no one likes to call and have to wait on hold. And it is a benefit to our staff because less calls are coming in, and office work is streamlined," Jordan says.

Linda Koepsel, director of marketing at PhysicianWebPages, recommends that practices consider adding any functions that improve convenience and save time for medical staff and for patients.

The Seabrook, Texas-based design firm added an online appointment scheduling and registration feature to a Web site created for Pediatrics@Nite, a Dulles, Va.-based practice run by Herbert Bravo, MD. With these online services, parents can preregister and avoid having to simultaneously wrestle with pen-and-paper registration forms and a sick child in the office, which treats children at night and weekends.

Jack Zoldan, MD, a Chicago-based internist, enables patients to communicate electronically with his practice through a secure online communication system provided by NeedMyDoctor. The Chicago-based company's system enables patients to send secure messages to participating practices, to request appointments, refill prescriptions or ask clinical questions.

Dr. Zoldan says the Web site's communication feature has also proven to be an access point for new patients.

"People will use the online communication tool to make an initial contact or to ask if a particular problem is something that I can talk to them about," Dr. Zoldan says.

"It's a good way for us to start communicating and get into a dialogue -- although I don't make actual clinical diagnoses or write prescriptions based on online communications."

Education and marketing

The online communication is just one way that Dr. Zoldan uses his Web site to help empower patients to take more control of their health. Operating under a "from wisdom comes well-being" motto, Dr. Zoldan's Web site, which he launched about a year ago, also includes educational materials.

"I use my site to get good health information out to people. There are many things I have to say in terms of health maintenance and wellness, and the Web site gives me the opportunity to educate my patients."

The site contains educational information on a number of health care issues, including chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, menstrual complaints and periodic physical exams.

Although Dr. Zoldan offers such health education primarily as a way to help patients better manage their own health, the education efforts sometimes act as a marketing tool as well.

For example, people who are looking for a doctor to treat chronic fatigue syndrome often find him because he frequently addresses the topic on his site.

"If people Google certain words such as 'chronic fatigue' and 'Chicago,' I am likely to come up because it is something that I post information about on the Web," Dr. Zoldan says. That's one way patients might try to find a local physician who specializes in a specific condition.

Some doctors are much more deliberate in using their Web sites to market their services, and pay consultants to "optimize" their sites by placing various key words that will attract more visitors. Others advertise on the Internet through programs such as Google Adwords, which allows anyone to pay to have their business get a prominent place in Google search results.

Although hard-hitting marketing that includes optimization and online advertising is appropriate for procedure-driven, high-volume practices, such as groups that offer Lasik surgery, most physicians do not have to invest in such marketing strategies, Dr. Rothschild says.

Nelson, the consultant, agreed.

"It's important to have a Web site that prospective patients can find," she says. "But I don't think that many patients are actually blindly searching for doctors.

"People hear about a certain doctor through word of mouth. and then they might go to the Internet to learn more about the practice."

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Web site revamp

In 2006, Primary Care Group, a Harrisburg, Ill.-based practice, turned to PhysicianWebPages to update its 6-year-old site. The company helped the practice develop a more contemporary, easier-to-navigate site with enhancements including:

  • Appointment request form
  • FAQs
  • New patient forms
  • Patient education articles
  • Patient survey
  • Programmed directions to office
  • Privacy policy
  • Upcoming events

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Web sites need regular tune-ups between overhauls

Although physicians should periodically consider major overhauls of their Web sites, constant attention is required just to keep a site relevant.

"Physicians need to keep their sites fresh. As a result, they need to constantly add new content or features, something to make patients want to go to the site," said Rosemary Nelson, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based physician practice management consultant.

Here are a few of the things physicians should consider doing on an ongoing basis:

Keep basic information current. Glenn Lombardi, president of Officite, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based Web design company, recommends that doctors infuse their sites with updated information at least once a month. "If a practice adds new staff, purchases a piece of equipment or starts to offer a new service, all of that information should be updated on the site. Even if a practice just changes its office hours, such information needs to be kept current," Lombardi said.

Provide new educational materials. "You might want to provide a health tip of the week or an educational article every month," Nelson said.

Respond to news events. Drug recalls and other happenings often make front-page news. Experts say that by posting reactions to such events on their sites, doctors can drive traffic to their sites -- and, at the same time, answer many patient questions, thereby reducing the volume of incoming calls that are likely to come into the office.

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External links

Michael Rothschild, MD, New York pediatric otolaryngologist (link)

Physician Associates, Florida-based multispecialty group (link)

Center for Aesthetic Surgery, Mark Epstein, MD, Stony Brook, N.Y., plastic surgeon (link)

Jack Zoldan, MD, Chicago internist (link)

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