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Computer Consult: Make your Web site a teaching tool


It's easy to stock your online office with clinical content.


Computer Consult

Make your Web site a teaching tool

It's easy to stock your online office with clinical content.

Cheryl L. Toth

If your practice has a Web site, you're probably discovering that patients want more than physician biographies and directions to your office. They're asking if you've put prenatal instructions online, or if you plan to add any information about arthritis.

Do you have to spend weekends writing material to make them happy? Thankfully, No. You can give patients the online clinical content they want without much fuss. It can be the "killer app" (application) that makes them want to log onto your site again and again.

Let's clarify something up front. Some physician Web site companies that provide free templated sites (such as Medem) also supply patient education material specific to a doctor's specialty. But if you're the master of your own domain—if you or a custom Web designer created your site—coming up with patient education material is your job. Follow these tips to create content patients will rave about.

Use what you've already got. If you've written handouts on how to treat a sprained ankle, lose weight, care for an Alzheimer's patient, and the like, your work is half done. Gather these materials and review them to decide what you can post on the practice's Web site in fact sheets or checklists.

Until the advent of the Internet, patients could access these materials only during your office hours. Putting them on your site allows patients to read them anytime.

Publish your standard answers. Compile a list of questions that patients ask the most, such as "My baby has a fever of 101. Should I bring her in?" or "My son got his cast wet. What do we do?" Post them and your usual responses in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section.

Don't forget about other information that you routinely dispense. What do you normally tell a woman when she discovers that she's pregnant—where to find childbirth classes? Local contacts for the La Leche League? This information will fit nicely on your Web site, too.

Use public-domain content from the NIH. You really can get something for nothing. The Web site for the National Institutes of Health ( www.nih.gov ) and those for its constituent organizations have educational materials—some in Spanish—on a myriad of diseases, treatments, and procedures. Virtually all the information is in the public domain, so it's not subject to copyright restrictions. That means you can publish it on your Web site free of charge without violating the law. The smattering of copyrighted material on the NIH's site, such as the Adam Health Illustrated Encyclopedia, is marked as such. Otherwise, the material is up for grabs with the agency's blessing, says NIH online chief Dennis Rodrigues.

If you're looking for special recipes for hypertensives, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute ( www.nhlbi.nih.gov ) has 94 "Stay Young at Heart" recipes you can post. If you want to educate patients about the signs of depression, the National Institute of Mental Health ( www.nimh.nih.gov ) has resources that fit the bill. And if you've got moms intent on protecting their asthmatic children from dust, post a fact sheet from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases ( www.niaid.nih.gov ) titled "How to Create a Dust-Free Bedroom."

But beware: Medical society Web sites and commercial health portals copyright their content. So if you want to publish an article about cholesterol from the patient education Web site of the American Academy of Family Physicians ( www.familydoctor.org ), you need written permission. The same holds true for health portals such as drkoop.com or WebMD.

An easier, law-abiding way to share copyrighted material with patients online is to put a hyperlink on your site to the Web page that has the information. Engineer your Web site so the linked material appears in a pop-up window. Technically, that's part of the site that copyrighted the material, not your site. When the patient closes the pop-up window, he's back on your cyberturf.

Link to interactive tools. The NIH's Web site has calculators for body mass index and heart attack risk, quizzes, coloring pages for kids, and more.

MyAsthma ( www.myasthma.com ), a commercial Web site, provides an online diary for asthmatics to enter their peak flow measures. Patients can print it out in a line graph and review it with their doctor. By providing a link from your site to MyAsthma, you can get the patient involved in his own care and both of you can keep better track of his condition.

Note, though, patients don't want to see a mere list of Web links, especially enigmatic URLs. They want to know what makes the sites good. So explain why you recommend linked resources and what patients will find at each one. The explanation needn't be lengthy. The Web site for Esse Health, a group practice in suburban St. Louis, includes a link for a pediatric site called Bright Futures ( www.brightfutures.org) and then states, "Information on child development. Milestones from infancy to adolescence."

Another way to jazz up a link is to make it self-explanatory: "Recipes for heart-healthy desserts."

Follow HONcode principles. Whether you use your own content or a third party's, observe the eight principles of conduct from the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch ), whose governing council includes physicians, academics, and government officials. The international foundation emphasizes, among other things, the importance of identifying the author or source of clinical content and citing the publication date.

Integrating clinical content in your Web site needn't put a strain on you, your staff, or your finances. Explore your options and get creative. As patients expect more from their doctors online, you'll be ready with great educational material that allows them to learn and take charge of their health.

The author is a Tucson-based writer and practice management consultant with KarenZupko & Associates. Computer Consult is edited by Senior Editor Robert Lowes.


Cheryl Toth. Computer Consult: Make your Web site a teaching tool. Medical Economics 2002;17:28.

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