Operating a Successful Practice Website: Tips and Tricks

October 10, 2011

There will be a time (perhaps sooner than one might think) that a practice website (or homepage) will be as normal, and as necessary, as telephone and fax nowadays.

There will be a time (perhaps sooner than one might think) that a practice website (or homepage) will be as normal, and as necessary, as telephone and fax nowadays. 

Why a practice website? 1. Patients/consumers prefer their own doctor for medical information: if their doctor has this information on the practice website, patients know they can trust it.
2. The doctor or nurse, in the practice, can tell patients exactly where they can find information about a certain treatment.
3. The doctor can make available details of practice hours, a map of the practice’s location and other organisational information.
4. Patients can use the site to make appointments and to request prescription refills.

But…
Doctors who want a website for their practice need to bear a few things in mind:
1. In Europe the density of Internet users is not yet as high as in the USA. It becomes lower as you move south within Europe.
2. As a group, women who might wish to consult a gynaecologist do not necessarily have the same characteristics as the typical Internet user, who is young, relatively highly educated and financially independent. However, the number of women, including elderly patients, searching for information on the Internet has been growing and now surpasses the number of men.

“…The number of women searching for information on the Internet has been growing and now surpasses the number of men.”

3. The creation of your own site can raise very important legal questions: in some countries in Europe doctors are not allowed to advertise, and having a website could be seen as a way to attract more patients. If in doubt, ask your professional association before you start to run your site.
4. You need to assess the competitive situation for physicians in your country. In some parts of Europe and the USA your competitors will check your site immediately for possible errors and illegal advertising. 
5. Do not expect that the day after your website appears it will be visited constantly. Your patients, current and prospective, will not know about it automatically! A website is like any other commercial operation, which must first establish itself in the market. You have to promote it.

“Your patients, current and prospective, will not know about your website automatically! You have to promote it.”

6. You must consider questions from patients as constituting a part of their medical records. This means that, as soon as you launch your site, you have to keep the Q&A very secure, with professional encryption.
7. For the same reason, never use the same email address for your practice and for yourself. (You don't allow your children to play video games on your practice computer…)

Some thoughts about copyright
For the website you will need content. This is certainly very important. But so much has been written already and you somehow have the feeling that you do not need to write everything again. Please remember that everything written by an author, photographed or published is the property of the author, photographer or whoever they sold it to! Keep this in your mind when you build a website. Before you create your own website, you will, as a matter of course, look at similar sites. Resist any temptation to copy any text from these into your own site: you would inevitably come into conflict with the copyright laws. (If you really feel you have to add some alien text, try at least to recast it into your own words.)

How to operate your website
If you decide you want to have your own website, there are several options:
1. You can commission a professional website designer to develop and host your site and trust that they will have good taste and enough commitment to all your ideas. To find a webmaster, you can ask your colleagues, check the yellow pages or browse the Web. Ask for a quote from at least two companies: the differences in price will be surprising! 
2. Buy one of the innumerable HTML software programs in order to do it yourself. You construct your site – via trial and error – while learning to handle the program. Then you contact an ISP (Internet service provider) and upload your own site to the web. This will save you some money but will cost you a lot of time: to create a professional-looking website yourself, you should allow weeks, or even months.
3. A friend, or the son of a neighbour, offers to put the site together for you? Remember that with the website you present yourself: an amateurish website will reflect on you and on your professional skills.
4. There are now some medical associations who offer to provide websites for individual members. This is really the best solution: not too expensive, a professional design and, most important, a guarantee of high-quality and up-to-date content. 

Promoting your website
As your website becomes well known you will gradually start to benefit from it.
There are several ways of promoting your site:
1. The most elegant option is to create numerous ‘meta tags’. Also, register the site with all the relevant search engines. But please remember that this will not specifically address your target group. A virtual patient, far away, who logs on to your website may find it useful but will never visit your practice. She may email you with a lot of very interesting questions. It will take you several hours to answer these, all unpaid. Instead of saving you time it will cost you hours of your leisure time.
2. A better method for promoting your website is to announce your URL (i.e. web address) in the local media: the local newspaper or television. You can imagine: someone is reading the newspaper and comes across your announcement. Perhaps her friend has suffered from dysmenorrhoea for a long time, so she tells her friend about this new website. 
3. Tell everybody about it! Print the URL on your business cards, practice stationery and invoices. Announce it in your waiting room and on your answering machine. This will arouse interest and curiosity about your website. 

Some tips and tricks1. Do not pack your website with information: you can answer questions and discuss issues when a patient visits your practice (this, after all, is the reason for the website). Also, providing a lot of information opens up the potential for legal action against you. 
2. Keep the navigation simple: the patient must be able to return very easily to the homepage with your address and telephone number.
3. Do not restrict your website to just technical material. Prospective patients will be interested in some personal details about their future gynaecologist: number of children, leisure interests, etc.).
4. When you invite the patient to respond by email, remember that she will not necessarily be accessing the Internet from home, so sometimes there will be no email facility available. Create a CGI Script for the email facility, so the patient can answer from the Internet caf or community library. 
5. Under no circumstances use protected areas. Your new patients may feel excluded.
6. Install a guest book: enable the patient to write in compliments or criticism. You can delete all criticism immediately, of course, but remember that the patient will see that her comment has been removed! Most important: don’t forget to check the guest book regularly. http://www.alxbook.com/ 
7. Attach a hit counter! This gives the patient the impression that your website is read by lots of people. Do not begin with 0: you can set the counter to start on a high number: http://www.fastcounter.com 
8. Add a city/town map with the location of your practice and parking suggestions marked. 
9. Install a search facility on your homepage for glossary words. Patients need to find useful information easily: http://www.freefind.com/ 
10. Give your website an up-to-date feel: insert the current date on the homepage.


Despite the glitches that inevitably occur with such a project, I hope this article has encouraged you to create your own practice website.