Creating a Website for Your Practice
These days, doctors find that many patients come into appointments having already diagnosed themselves based on information they found on the Internet. Given the unregulated nature of the Web, patients often present misleading or distorted information as the basis for self-evaluations when they meet with their physicians.
Some medical practices have set up websites that allow patients to get health information that has been cleared by their own physicians. Other benefits of having a website include the possibility of doctors communicating with patients via online chats and the ability to provide virtual medical facility tours to prospective patients.
Thousands of medical groups have carved out their niches in cyberspace to take advantage of the Internet, help patients and add profits. Surveys by the American Medical Association (AMA) indicate that more than 50 percent of U.S. doctors now have their own websites.
Many physicians also believe that having a website is an important marketing tool for their practices. Surveys have shown that Internet users are seeking health information and want online information from their doctors.
In response, doctors are creating websites as electronic business cards, introducing themselves and their colleagues to prospective patients and showcasing a range of services.
Creating a website doesn't have to be extremely time-consuming or expensive. The first step in the process is deciding what you want your site to accomplish. You should provide the basics -- practice hours, driving directions, a mission statement and physician profiles. These features, which are the online equivalent of a brochure, offer several advantages. They are inexpensive to create, a snap to maintain and easy to access. They also save staff members time because they don't have to answer as many routine questions.
A more in-depth website can offer visitors regular articles about new developments in the practice's specialties. The site can also provide information on how to get prescription refills, who to call for billing problems and a chance to view pictures of the facilities and doctors associated with the practice.
Some websites answer frequently asked questions about specific conditions and illnesses, as well as provide links to sites with relevant information. Another option: Including downloadable forms that patients can fill out before they come in for appointments.
The most elaborate websites combine all of these features with virtual services for the practice's patients. Consumers can make appointments online, email questions to their doctors and get test results through the website's secure database. Many practices charge a nominal fee for ``e-visits" and email reminders about visits and medical tests.
However, such web-based services can raise privacy concerns. To avoid email security issues, some companies offer to handle practices' communications through their secure websites. If your practice decides to go it alone, make sure the web designer you hire includes extra layers of security to keep hackers out of your database.
Get professional help to make sure your website complies with privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The law beefs up penalties for failing to keep patient information private. The AMA has published guidelines to ensure the ethical dissemination of medical information on the Internet (see right-hand box).
Once a website is up and running, it must be maintained. This might involve nothing more than making occasional updates of office hours, procedures and staff directories or it can involve daily or weekly additions to the site.
The practice should appoint a web manager to oversee the site. When possible, it's less expensive to do this internally by having an office manager or computer-savvy staff member take on the task. Or you can hire an outside company to manage the site for a fee.
Another task: Set up practice policies for dealing with requests generated by patients and visitors to the site. Designate who will handle requests for information, appointments and prescription refills. Decide how to alert patients that their messages were received.
Once your site is online, let patients know. A simple brochure or flier can direct patients to the site and advise them of appropriate communication (for instance, remind them to telephone the practice immediately for urgent needs). Put the practice's web address at the bottom of all correspondence. Having a presence on the World Wide Web does no good if patients don't know about it!