Does your practice need to go dot com?

By Samuel Jarjour
http://www.nationalreviewofmedicine.com

Every business should have a website. A doctor’s practice is a business. Ergo, your practice should have a website. Right?

Well, maybe. Before you run out and put that syllogism into practice, consider the stories of two Ontario docs who took the website plunge — with two very different results.

ONLINE UPS & DOWNS
Hamilton cardiologist Dr Greg Curnew is a doc with big ideas. Twelve years ago he started LIFE (Lifestyle Intervention For Ever), a cardiac patient support group he runs out of a United church one Friday each month. A few years later he added a website (www.healthcorner.ca) with diet and exercise advice, as well as detailed information on diseases and procedures. But while LIFE’s been a blockbuster success, Dr Curnew admits the website’s been mostly a drain — both on his time and his pocketbook. “It’s a big commitment,” he says. “I’m not really trained to update and manage it myself.”

Fastforward to Ottawa, 2005. Family doc Dr Robert Eaton noticed his practice was getting a ton of calls about the same stuff over and over: “When are you open?,” “Do you call in refills?”, “Are you taking new patients?”

The practice needed one place where patients’ FAQs could be answered, leaving the secretaries free to devote their time to more important tasks. For Dr Eaton, a practice website seemed like the ideal solution.

His no-frills website (mydoctor.ca/drroberteaton) was launched that year and almost immediately started easing pressure on his admin staff by cutting down on phone calls. “The secretaries really notice the difference,” he says.

He recounts one of his website’s recent success stories. “Last year, we had the flu shots quite late and we were flooded with calls asking if they were ready,” he recalls. They put a message on their voicemail telling patients to check the vaccine status on the website. “When the vaccines were ready, we updated the site to let patients know, and they started coming in for their shots.”

KEEP IT SIMPLE
So why did these two docs have such different website experiences? Both MDs agree that the key to a successful practice website is keeping things simple, and that means asking yourself two things: how and what.

Here are some really easy tips to get you the useful, time-saving practice website of your dreams.

1. How do I get started?
There are a lot of tools out there to help you build a website. Some are as easy as setting up an email account, others require much more tech-savvy and even (gasp) knowledge of HTML.

But since simple is our mantra, we recommend you forget all that, follow Dr Eaton’s lead and opt for a page at the CMA’s mydoctor.ca. A sort of MySpace for doctors, it’s free for all CMA members and makes building a webpage mostly a fill-in-the-blanks process, with pre-fabricated templates for your office hours, directions, health links and other relevant info. The skill level here is low and it produces a straightforward website with no ads.

Dr Curnew’s site is a more complicated affair, designed by a pro. The trouble with this, he discovered, is after the pro goes away you’re left with the job of maintaining a pretty complicated site.

2. What should I include on my website?
You’ve got your site, now you need to figure out what should go there. Ask your staffers what questions they get asked the most and address the ones you can on the website. Here’s a list of the main things you should include:

Hours and directions Include clinic hours and directions with a link to a map. List phone numbers for hospitals, out-of-hours clinics or local health hotlines.

Pre-visit instructions Explain tests you commonly do, so patients are prepared and appointments run smoothly. Tell them how to dress, remind them if they need to bring a sample and anything else they should expect.

Extra costs Spare patients unpleasant surprises by listing prices for common uninsured services.

Practice policies Spell out your practice’s rules, stuff like prescription renewals, whether you’re taking new patients, how to go about getting copies of medical records, etc.

Advisories and advice If there’s something going around, put a note on the site explaining the symptoms and what patients can do to alleviate them. You can also post brief “notes from the physician” when drugs are pulled from the market.

Medical links Post links to your favourite doctor-approved health websites, including local support groups.

Community message board If you’re involved in local goings-on, post your community calendar. Advertise upcoming events open to the public, like health fundraisers or conferences you’re involved with.

Disclaimer The info on your site can never replace a real visit. Make that clear to visitors. Mydoctor.ca includes disclaimers in its template options.

The CMA has a set of guidelines for online communications available at policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/PolicyPDF/PD05-03.
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Practice Website Dos And Don’ts

Do be realistic.
Do keep your site up to date. Make sure you look in at least once a month to take down outdated advisories and information.
Do pick a catchy web address — one that’s easy to remember and doesn’t need to be spelled when spoken.
Do spread the word about your site. Include your web address in the office voicemail message. Add it to office letterhead, prescription slips, posters and follow-up appointment cards.
Don’t post anything too personal about yourself. Keep your pet photos and holiday snaps for your MySpace page.
Don’t replace face-to-face visits with your website. Your site is for basic info only, and this should be made clear to patients.

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