THE TECH DOCTOR: Rev Up Your Web Site

February 1, 2006

Steve Rebagliati, MD, reveals how to rev up your Web site.


Sure, you use technology to schedule appointments and manage billing. But what about using it to communicate with patients, and even to improve their access to your practice? Patient-directed technology is one of the most exciting topics for today’s physician because of the leverage it can provide for actually increasing profits and decreasing liability. I’ve spent the last two years - and thousands of dollars - studying this subject and getting information from the best vendors and researchers in the business. The possibilities are so exciting that I actually teach a year-long course for physicians on this subject.

But here, let’s focus on my three favorite strategies:

  • Using your practice’s Web site as a true patient resource to free up staff time.

  • Developing a secure e-mail communication system for patient questions and follow-up.

  • Creating e-zines and other forms of electronic marketing.

The dot-coms have come and gone, and the World Wide Web is about 10 years old now. Despite this, it’s astounding how few practices use their Web sites for a true competitive advantage. There’s no reason be intimidated and settle for creating just a brochure Web site, yet that’s what most practices do. It’s fine to put up a page with your practice location, photos of practitioners, and basic contact information, but if you stop there, you’re selling yourself short.

One of the greatest values of a Web site is its interactivity and ability to engage visitors and capture contact information. In an era in which payer mix may make the difference between prosperity and insolvency, you can’t afford to let assets like your Web site go to waste. So offer online appointment requests, prescription refill requests, interactive forms for new patient information, physician-patient e-mail (more about that later), or even online bill paying. Of course, you also have to make sure people come there.

Here’s a little-known secret about search engines and Web sites. Searches done on Google or other engines with one or two keywords usually mean the visitors are doing research but have no serious buying interest. Searches done with three or more keywords, however, almost always indicate the searcher is ready to buy.

So if your medical group picks a Web site name with three keywords or more, you are likely to pick up new patient prospects who are actually looking for someone like you. For example, if you incorporate Denver Women’s Health Clinic into the URL - denverwomenshealthclinic.com - you’re likely to come up high on the search results whenever someone searches on these keywords. Whoever finds you will visit your Web site.

Domain registration is a simple but critical step in building and maintaining your Web site. Simply put, it’s the manner in which real estate on the World Wide Web is reserved; when your domain name is registered and the registration is kept current, no one can steal it.

I have used many different vendors for domain registration and hosting, and I can attest that the quality and expense vary tremendously. I’ve been burned by vendors going out of business and have, to my chagrin, discovered what a headache it can be to deal with some vendors based outside the United States (even in Canada). I’ll save you a lot of wasted money by recommending two domain registration services: Network Solutions (the most established but more expensive) at www.networksolutions.com, and Go Daddy (in my book the most efficient and inexpensive) at www.godaddy.com. Go Daddy also provides domain hosting for under $10 per month; the vendor affiliated with Network Solutions charges $79 or more per month. Interland (www.interland.com) is a quality vendor for somewhat higher end service, including Web design.

E-mail made easy

Let’s look at secure e-mail communications. Recently, I interviewed attorney Stephen Rose, a senior partner at Preston Gates Ellis LLP, a prominent West coast law practice specializing in business and healthcare law. My lengthy conversation with him convinces me that you can safely use e-mail as a communication medium if you do two things:

First, make sure your patients have given you written permission to communicate by e-mail; this satisfies not only HIPAA but also other federal regulations such as the Can-SPAM law.

Second, use encrypted e-mail, either stand-alone on your own servers or with popular software such as Cypherus (www.cypherus.com).

A classic solution, formerly a favorite of the wired community, is PGP (“pretty good privacy”). It’s now available in a variety of configurations (from desktop to enterprise-wide), and you can look it up at www.pgp.com. PGP has partnered with Proofpoint, a company founded by the former chief technology officer of Netscape, to offer HIPAA-compliant e-mail and messaging solutions (www.proofpoint.com). You might also consider Kryptiq, a vendor whose product I’ve seen in action in medical practices and whose management team biographies read like a Who’s Who list of insurance and engineering gurus (www.kryptiq.com).

The encryption and secure e-mail industry is in a state of flux, with ferocious competition taking place today. I caution you to check out several vendors before picking one. That said, you ought to pick somebody for this service, and you should do this as soon as possible. Once you secure e-mail communications with your patients, you can answer follow-up questions in batches, using advice nurses if you like, to expedite the process. You can even use auto-responder software to create answers to frequently asked questions. No, most payers won’t reimburse you for time spent on e-mail, but then they don’t pay you for the time you spend on the phone either, and e-mail is much more efficient than phone tag. Obviously, if appropriately answering a patient question really requires an appointment and exam, you have the opportunity to instruct the patient to come in.

Remember, too, that you are in a battle for the marketplace here. The more affiliation you can create via your Web site and e-mail, the better for you and your patients - even if the tasks aren’t reimbursed directly.

Try an e-zine

Finally, consider taking your patient communication strategy to the next level with electronic letters, or e-zines. Surely you’ve seen, and may already use, paper newsletters to communicate with patients. Newsletters keep patients informed as to what is happening with your practice. You can use them to inform them of new providers or services, educate them for health maintenance, post articles about new babies you’ve delivered, and so on.

Newsletters are also useful for framing expectations about your practice so they aren’t disappointed when they access care. Studies have shown, for example, that patient satisfaction is linked not to wait times, but rather to perceived wait times. So a newsletter that educates patients on scheduling, billing, and physician access can frame your practice in such a way that perceived performance exceeds expectations.

You can immediately improve patient satisfaction and, with just a little effort, reduce liability risks and improve your payer mix by a judicious use of Internet and e-mail technologies. If you choose your vendors wisely, the cost is minimal compared to the payoff.

Steve Rebagliati, MD, MBA, is a practicing physician. He offers these resources, ideas, and tips for using information technology increase revenues, decrease hassles, and free up time, so physicians like you can succeed in a changing world. He can be reached by e-mail at admin@infotechfordoctors.com or via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Physicians Practice.