You wouldn't dream of letting your patients languish in a dirty waiting room, or wearing your weekend clothes to work. Why? Because it's important to present a professional face to the world. What, then, is the thinking behind that cookie-cutter website you threw together in 2004? Medical practices today must do more to create an online presence than post the equivalent of a single page ad, says Daniel Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Information Technology in Cold Spring, N.Y., which specializes in medical website design. "I liken a website's appearance to the appearance of your office," he says. "The way it looks reflects on the kind of treatment patients expect to receive." Those who encounter a home page that's poorly planned and uninformative, he says, will leave with the impression that patient satisfaction is a low priority in your office. And they won't give you a chance to prove them wrong. "People nowadays are looking for personalized medicine," says Gilbert, adding many turn to the Internet first as a resource for finding a physician.
When used effectively, medical websites enable doctors to extend their services, promote their practices, and better meet their patients' needs. Secure software solutions, for example, allow busy patients to retrieve lab results, schedule appointments, request refills, review their medical records, and pay bills online. The most cutting-edge physicians are also using patient portals to conduct e-visits with their patients, which improve access to care for those who live in remote locations, and the chronically ill who might otherwise skip routine check-ups. "It's about providing access to information and care in the manner your patients want to get it," says Rhondda Francis, an interactive marketing strategist for TransforMED, a subsidiary of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "More and more patients expect these things and if you don't have them you look stuck in the past. It's a matter of responsiveness."
If your website isn't exactly winning awards for user friendliness, it's time to revisit your strategy. Here's a guide to creating a better online experience, plus some tips on what patients, and the search engines that control visibility, are looking for.
Phase 1: planning
The most effective medical websites start with a mission, says Nic Nevin, chief executive of website design company ifxmedical.com in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. "That's one of the most common mistakes medical websites make," says Nevin. "They try to do a little marketing, a little education, and a little background about their practice. They end up not doing anything particularly well." Indeed, no website can be all things to all people. Practices that derive most of their business from referrals by other doctors, he says, should use their site to establish credibility. Display credentials, awards, physician profiles, and any other credibility indicators that show you are a leader in your field. By and large, these visitors have already decided to use your practice, so your goal is to reassure.
Practices that bring in the bulk of their patients through branding initiatives, on the other hand, should focus instead on setting themselves apart. "You'll still want the credibility statements and educational material, but those with medical conditions who are shopping around for a doctor are more concerned about themselves so it's less about the physicians and more about the patient. The focus needs to be on how you can help them," says Nevin.
Before you begin mocking up your website's homepage, Gilbert says it's wise to do some recon. By surveying the sites of your competition, you'll get a better feel for what is possible and what works well. Your next step is to identify the needs of your own patient population. "Think about who you are talking to," says Francis, noting it helps to develop personas of your typical users. "I even like to give them names, like 'single mom Sally,' use a stock photo and give them little stories so you really understand what her life is like." Discuss with the front-desk staff, administrator, and providers what these patients want when they visit your site. Online scheduling? Educational videos that she can watch on her own time after a long day at the office? "Ask yourself if these tasks can be done directly off the home page or within two clicks. If not, you need to rectify that," says Francis, noting you should also be aware of how your site looks on a smartphone. "You want to be sure that your patients are still able to see the things they need to see."