Upgrading physician websites for a post-ACA world

Medical practice websites need to become a go-to source for patients to serve as the technology backbone to a new patient-centered model of care.

By — Posted March 4, 2013.

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Whether a practice is launching a website or rebuilding one, thanks to a changing health care landscape of the Affordable Care Act, the websites physicians need by 2014 will look much different from the ones online today.

Today's sites are little more than an electronic version of a Yellow Pages ad. In the near future, websites will need to do more than tell a visitor the practice's address and phone number. They will be a key part of the physician-patient relationship.

“There's definitely a need for docs to get more out of their websites, which typically are static and rarely change,” said Susan Tellem, RN, partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations in Los Angeles.

Because of the ACA and the meaningful use incentive program, patient engagement will be an important piece of the physician-patient relationship. In today's technology-driven world, physician-sanctioned websites will be a necessary part of that engagement. Seventy-two percent of Internet users say they have looked online for health information, according to a February report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

A January report by Denver-based Vanguard Communications found that many practices will need to launch a site for the first time or significantly enhance the ones they have to meet these demands.

Vanguard analyzed the Web presence of 300 specialty physicians in Boston, Denver and Portland, Ore., who had 100% satisfaction ratings on HealthGrades. It found that seven of 10 were part of a website published either privately or by a hospital. Only 33% of the websites offered little more than basic information about the practice. “Doctors in these cities are still using their websites primarily as electronic brochures about their practices rather than as online health resources,” said Ron Harman Kind, Vanguard CEO, in a prepared statement.

Content on sites must be updated on a regular basis. Experts say there also are a few other must-have features, heading into 2014:

Personal touches. An estimated 30 million patients will join the ranks of the insured starting in 2014, and many will be looking for new physicians. Philippa Gamse, a digital marketing strategist and author of 42 Rules for a Web Presence That Wins, said she stresses to clients the importance of making an emotional connection with people who visit the website. “Most websites are lacking in this, but most physician websites are awful in this regard,” she said.

Photos and videos personalize physicians, experts say. Prospective patients should be able to come to the site and get a good feel for the physician's personality and bedside manner.

Integration with electronic health records. Under meaningful use requirements, physicians must implement a patient portal where patients can access their records and send secure messages to physicians. Most likely, the patient portal will be hosted on the practice's website.

Stephen Crane, founder and principal of Southern California-based CraneCreek Communications, said practices should include on their websites mechanisms for online scheduling and prescription refills. A survey of 2,311 U.S. adults conducted online in July 2012 by Harris Interactive found that online scheduling was important or very important to 41% of patients, but only 11% had access to the service.

Health education. Patients already are going online for health information, so why not be a go-to resource? Tellem suggested that physicians do this with a blog. Setting up a site is easy and gives even the least tech-savvy physicians the ability to update their websites through the many free blogging services available.

Gamse said the thing that sets useful educational resources apart is the way in which they are written. If physicians write as if they are talking to a patient, the information will be easier for the patient to digest.

“I selected a surgeon who was outside my health coverage because his blog on his specialty — and my problem — was so fascinating and easy to read that I was convinced he was the best man for me, even if I had to pay more,” Gamse said.

Integration with social media channels. Crane said the patient education component of a physician's Web presence can be placed on the practice's social media. Good integration between the website and social media will help raise the level of exposure.

Integration might mean a column on the side of the website's main page that shows activity on social media channels. Or it can be less subtle, such as placing social media “badges” on the home page that will take the user to the social media channel. Tellem suggested that the badges be placed high on the site.

Crane said a key problem with physician practice sites is that they have been treated like “wind-up toys” that have been set up and then left alone to run. “Going forward, it needs to be a balance of patient and practice,” he said.

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