In the last two years, the medical wing of the web has started to get busy. Check any search engine and you'll find, like a virtual urban highstreet, medical practices jostling for patients and business. While Middle East practices have been a little slower on the uptake than their Western peers, according to Dubai-based web designers CyberGear, regional physicians are fast realising that a little internet interaction can help make the difference between a packed or slack appointment schedule. "Every self-respecting practice needs its own website," says company CEO Sharad Agarwal.
If you can’t do it well, you are better placed not having a site at all. If your site does not look professional, patients won’t believe that you, as a doctor, are professional.
So what is driving this newfound fondness for the net? A Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive Poll suggests that patients are pushing for more virtual services from their physicians. Three-quarters of the adults surveyed said they would like to schedule their doctor appointments via the internet, that they'd appreciate email reminders when they are due for some type of medical care, and they would like to receive the results of diagnostic tests via email. More strikingly, 54% said the availability of online services would influence their choice of doctors a great deal, or to some extent. In a wired world, patients are beginning to expect the same level of internet services from their physician that they routinely receive from their bank. In a nutshell, Agarwal shrugs, practices that want to stay on course should get online. He says build it, and they will come.
But it's a mistake to think of your website as just a tool to please your patients. Get it right and the web, with its global reach, can put a small practice on an equal footing with the largest hospital, opening up new markets for little money. "Having a website is like creating a new sales channel for your business," Agarwal explains. "It's 24/7. Even when you're sleeping, there are prospective patients looking at your website." And that's to say nothing of the time, man-hours and money that a well-designed site can free up.
It's astounding, says Rachael Sizeland, founder of the UK-based RAS Marketing, how few practices use their websites to their full competitive advantage. "Aside from basic practice information, websites can be used to highlight your services and to display case studies and newsletters," she explains. "They are one of the most cost-effective ways of getting your name out there."
Despite the options, some practices continue to sell themselves short, creating webpages that stop at offering the practice's location and basic contact information. Called first edition sites, these are static electronic brochures, typically created from a scanned pdf and, Argawal says, barely worth the code they are written on. Under the CyberGear umbrella, Argawal has created award-winning websites for regional names such as the American Hospital, Dubai, the Emirates Arthritis Foundation, and Welcare World Health Systems. By including features such as appointment scheduling and reminders, practice events and ‘Frequently Asked Questions on these sites, he explains, you can cut the amount of time your staff spend on the phone, help patients access the information they want quickly, and help streamline your working practices. "Administratively, websites more than pay for themselves if the content is relevant and adequate," he stresses.
If you're considering setting up a site for your practice, some simple guidelines can help ensure your site ticks all the virtual boxes.
Picking your partner
Your website, says Jon Catanese, webmaster for the Cleveland Clinic, should essentially be viewed as an extension of your business. "One of the first places prospective patients will go to now to get an impression of your organisation is your website," he states. "We call it our front door. For that, even if for no other reason, it's important for you to have your act together online." And Catanese should know. The Cleveland Clinic site - which offers everything from podcasts that provide breaking news, to MyChart, a personalised online medical record for patients - consistently ranks as one of the best interactive healthcare sites on the net.
As an online representation of your brand, your first step when going online is to layout exactly what you want from the site. "A website is a business tool to help you meet an objective," Catanese explains. "You need to have a stated goal associated with your website, as it relates to the business. What do you hope your website will achieve? Who are you looking to serve with this website?
"That goal should drive your decisions."
The second step, for most physicians, is to pick a web developer to partner with. For those of you who feel you have creative flair, it's worth noting that all the experts we spoke to, when asked whether homegrown sites were acceptable, answered with a resounding "No". Unless you have a background in web design, DIY sites are a recipe for disaster and can be spotted at 30 paces by any net-savvy consumer.
"I've seen a lot of homemade websites and they are not ideal," Sizeland says. "In the healthcare sector especially, your site has to be professional, to raise any credibility within your market space."
Argawal goes one step further. "If you can't do it well, you are better placed not having a site at all," he says, flatly. "You need to look better than you are on the web. If your site does not look professional, patients won't believe that you, as a doctor, are professional."
So how should you select a vendor for your site? Argawal recommends starting with a background check of the firm. "The UAE particularly has seen a lot of fly-by-night operators," he explains. "Check how long the company has been in business."
It's also important to look for a company with experience within the healthcare field, he adds. "If this is the first website they've done in your field, your experience may be a little shaky. It helps if they know what to bring to the table."
Argawal also advises asking whether the site design will actually take place in the region, or whether it will be outsourced to an overseas branch. "If you are a novice when it comes to websites, then you need someone with relevant regional experience to guide you," he explains. "Companies that outsource might not be on the same wavelength as the sector in the Middle East."
Back to basics
Just as a practice reception would look strange without a front desk, online offices boast their own key elements that each site should incorporate. A common mistake made by net novices is thinking that a good-looking site is a good site. When it comes to the web, beauty is only screen-deep, and if you can't match style with substance, your site won't succeed.
"Content is king," Argawal stresses. "The more information you provide, the more time people will spend on your website, and the more chance they will do business with you."
If you're unsure what information you want to include, don't panic. Most web vendors have a good grasp of the content you should be posting online. "We start by asking the client what they have in mind, to put on the site," Argawal explains. "That probably makes up about 50% of the content that goes on the site. We'll add the other 50%, through interactive features and other functions."
It can help to think of your site as having three stages of development. The first stage should include a basic introduction to your practice, such as your practice mission, the services you offer, a ‘Frequently Asked Questions' page, and contact information.
FAQs are some of the most heavily visited pages, Catanese reports, so putting these answers online can help free up your front-desk staff. Argawal uses the American Hospital, Dubai (AHD) as a case in point.
"Look at the number of calls that are received by your average hospital or practice - how many of those could be dealt with online?" he asks. "If you have FAQs, location and contact details available online, it stops your receptionist having to field these questions."
Not sure what to questions to post in your FAQ section? Poll your staff. They can update you on the most common requests they hear.
The second stage of your site adds in administrative functions, such as online appointment booking, pre-registering and access to downloadable forms.
"Since AHD introduced online appointment booking, the number of calls they receive have reduced and online traffic has increased," Argawal explains. "They also send an SMS or email after online booking, and patients respond to confirm the appointment. It cuts down on no-shows and helps the staff to better schedule physician time."
The third stage involves clinical interactions with patients, such as prescription refill requests, or online payment, and requires access to secure e-mail communication between physicians and patients. At this stage, you'll be handling sensitive patient information, so seek professional advice to ensure your site is secure.
"Security on the web is a concern in this part of the world, but more through ignorance than anything else," Argawal admits. "We work with Emirates and Masreq bank, both local banks, to support online payment gateways, and we can support this function on any site. Patients can be sure their personal medical information is safe - the technology takes care of it."
But designing your site is only half the battle. Your website might be a paragon of online perfection, but if your patients can't find it, it's still a waste of web space. "If your customers can find one of your competitors on the web, but they can't find your site, than there is very little likelihood that they will come to you," Sizeland says, adding that search engine optimisation is must. "When people are looking for you, they should find you straight away - on the first page of Google."
Content is king. The more information you provide, the more time people will spend on your website, and the more chance they will do business with you.
With the gaggle of sites competing for visitors, its worthwhile getting professional advice on the science of scoring with search engines. "You must have the right keywords on your site, not from your point of view but from the users," Argawal explains. "It's not enough to say ‘hospital' and ‘healthcare'. I have to think about what people are typing into Google to find me. You need to have the right meta-tag."
Sites need to be periodically submitted to search engines, so any new content that has been posted also gets indexed. "Search engine optimisation needs to be done on an ongoing basis," Argawal adds.
And navigation doesn't stop once visitors have reached your homepage. A smart site should be easy to find your way round.
"The key thing to any website is to have a well-thought out and logical navigational system," Catanese stresses, "And then the ability to use an internal search engine that's inherent in the site to find that information, and to fine-tune your search results within that search."
It's something that regional sites often fall down on. "Many regional websites don't have internal search capabilities," Argawal reports.
The golden rule for any site is to provide the right information within three clicks. "We call it the three click principle," he says, "Because no one has the time to search through your mission, your vision, to find the information they want. Providing the right content, quickly, is the biggest challenge we face."
Catanese recommends utilitising tracking software to identify what search terms people use to access your site from a main search engine, and to track how they navigate your site. This information can help you structure your site to accommodate your users. "Listen to your consumer, and base your design refinements on their needs," he advises.
In the battle for market share, the more patient affiliation you can create via your website, the better for your business. So once your patients have located your site, how can you entice them to return?
One tip is through building an online community. Practices ask visitors to register to receive e-newsletters for example, or to join a discussion forum or blog - essentially any tool that will encourage users to spend time on the site and become regular visitors.
"We look for ‘stickiness' in sites," Argawal explains. "If you can create a forum that encourages user interaction, it helps foster loyalty with patients and with referring physicians.
"The UAE is growing so fast, there are a lot of clinics and hospitals springing up and it's a challenge for doctors to retain their patients. Online communities can help with that."
Welcare Hospital, Dubai, for example, is set to introduce interactive online sessions with a physician panel to its website, as part of its focus on patient education. "Patients can post questions about common ailments, and the doctors will respond," Argawal says. "It's a complimentary service that will draw patients back to the site."
A week may be a long time in politics, but it's an eternity in cyberspace. So it's essential, says Catanese, to remember to update the content on your site regularly. Don't make the mistake of thinking that once your site is established, your work is done. "A website is an evolving thing," he stresses.
Argawal urges his clients to be proactive with their content. "Provide the compulsion for people to visit your website again," he says. "It's the same principle as going to Harvey Nichols and seeing the same window display on a weekly basis. Shoppers would think there was nothing new there. It's the same with websites."
Used correctly, a website is a cost-effective means to educate patients, free up staff time and market your business to potential customers. A web site that is dated, difficult to navigate and unprofessional can damage your credibility. If you take the time to properly plan and design it, your site can be a great asset to your practice. The competition is only a click away.
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