Improve Your Practice Website 'Curb' Appeal

November 5, 2012

Websites are no longer optional for medical practices, so here's a primer on how to make the best online first impression.

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."

Basic elements

While every home page is different, they should all be clutter-free, drafted in a font size that's easy to read (particularly important for geriatric specialties) and include a navigation bar that helps users quickly and easily access information, says Francis. It should also include your logo, phone number, hours of operation, what to do in case of emergency or after hours, and a brief summary about the kind of care you provide. Prominent links to online scheduling, forms and documents, and your secure patient portal or EHR, if you have one, are a must, says Francis, noting bright colors and graphic elements make these links pop.  "Your receptionists will be telling patients where to find this information on your site over and over again so make it easy," says Francis. "They need to be able to say, 'Look for the butterfly in the top right corner.' Their time is extremely valuable." Your home page should also promote any affiliations you have with medical groups, IPAs, or hospitals, along with certifications or awards that you have earned. "Shout it out," says Francis.

According to Gilbert, a well-designed medical website is typically 10 pages to 20 pages deep. Most include a "Contact Us" page which aggregates information about how to reach you - maps to your office, address, photos of your office exterior, phone and fax numbers, and hours of operation. (Your address, phone and fax numbers should be duplicated on every page of your site.) An "About Us" page is also important, offering patients additional background on how long you've been in business, the number of providers you have on staff, your position on treatment options (vaccines, cutting-edge technology, etc.), and areas of expertise.

Patient testimonials deserve a page of their own, as well, says Gilbert. "Based on a review of our analytics, we find that patient testimonials are some of the more popular pages on medical practice websites," he says. "People really do like to read about what other patients are saying." Just be sure to tread lightly. HIPAA privacy rules restrict practices from disclosing any information that identifies a patient.

You may also consider an informational page for new patients, which provides details on the type of documents they'll need to bring on their first visit, phone numbers to the front desk, links to MapQuest or Yahoo Maps so they can find you easily, and medical history and registration forms. You'll also want a page where patients can "Meet the Team," featuring headshots and bios about the providers on staff, says Gretchen Hoyle, a pediatrician with Twin City Pediatrics in Winston-Salem, N.C., who also runs a website design company called MD Online Solutions. "We have information about each doctor's educational background, their personal interests, their family, and what stage of life they're in on our website so anyone who is new to town can select the doctor that they feel is a fit," she says.

A library or resources page with information about the most common illnesses treated in your office is also key, from which you can link to other reputable organizations that help educate patients. These days, though, the more sophisticated Web users expect interactive elements.  If you offer online house calls, or e-visits, promote it high on your home page. For its part, Twin City Pediatrics offers an audio podcast series, in which one of its doctors delivers advice on topics that range from sleep problems to breastfeeding. The practice also created a series of video demonstrations on its library page about how to use an inhaler, peak flow meter, and spirometer. That's smart, says Nathan Caskey, search engine optimization (SEO) specialist for Practis website design company in Charlotte, N.C. "Google and other search engines are looking for current, relevant content so it's important to keep your website fresh," he says.

Be visible

Indeed, even the most informative website won't do you much good if your patients can't find you. There are several steps you can take to improve SEO - or boost your ranking on the search engine results page. In addition to podcasts, Caskey says doctors can easily produce blogs, in which they offer their perspective on the latest medical news, treatment options, or industry research. Press releases on new services or alliances with other groups, and "how to" articles that answer some of the more common patient inquiries are another opportunity to produce fresh content that search engines value.  Patient outcomes data is yet another. "I work with a lot of minimally invasive surgeons who use the da Vinci robot, and patients are still scratching their heads wondering if it works," says Caskey. "They want to see data that shows outcomes." How fast was the average recovery time? How long does the procedure take? What is the average size of the incision? "That gives your practice an edge over another," he says. Original content also makes you more likely to get linked to by other websites, which scores big points with the Googles of the world, says Francis. She notes you'll also land higher on the results page if you identify yourself to Web browsers as a "local" business.

Finally, don't forget to include the complete name of your practice in HTML text at the top of your home page, separate from your logo, and repeat the name of your business in the title of every subsequent page of your site. Example: "Contact Us - Cleveland Orthopedics." Why? Search engines read text, but they can't read words in a graphic unless you supply a metatag.  Metatags, which are buried in the programming, tell search engines information about your page and which keywords represent your site. "A big mistake that a lot of practices make is that they put their logo all over the place, but they forget that that's a picture," says Francis. "If you forget to put the appropriate metatag keyword in your logo it's going to be invisible to the search engines." But don't get too hung up on the use of metatags, she says. "I don't believe in trying to beat the system. When you focus on being self-evident in naming your pages and informative for the patient, you're already doing everything you should be doing to boost SEO value," she says.

Hoyle agrees: "Our website is huge for us from a quality perspective. When I see patients in the clinic I can direct them to our podcasts and our triage nurses can refer them to our library where they can educate themselves and fill out the forms we need to make a diagnosis." Much of that can be done ahead of the office visit. "Quality really is job one, but there are efficiencies that go along with that, as well," says Hoyle. "Having better-informed parents when they arrive for their appointment makes the visit that much more efficient."

Medical websites have moved beyond their original function as a mere marketing tool. Interactive technology and secure software enable practices to enhance both the quality of and access to care. Those that fail to deliver the online experience their patients demand, says Francis, will increasingly get left behind. "Practices get very worried about spending a lot of money on this and having to keep it up, but websites that are created in house often look like it," she says. "This is an investment that you need to keep fresh and do right."

In Summary

A website for your medical practice is a must these days, but you also need to be sure that you have the right information about your office online:

• Medical websites reflect the kind of treatment patients expect to receive in your office.

• Decide on a goal before you design your site.

• Home pages should be clutter-free and easy to navigate.

• Original content, including articles, blogs, and education videos, gets you noticed by Google.

• An informative website improves both patient care and office efficiency.

Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 17 years. Her work has appeared on CNBC.com, CNNMoney.com, and Bankrate.com. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Physicians Practice.