Time to update your Web site?

May 5, 2006

Practice Web sites have evolved from online brochures to a powerful way to share information.

When the Web site for Bristol Park Medical Group in suburban Los Angeles debuted in 1999, it was like most practice Web sites back then-basically just an advertisement.

Not any longer. First the 80-doctor primary care group amassed an online library of patient education material. Next came communication tools that allowed patients to request appointments and prescription refills and to ask clinical questions. These are a convenience for patients and mean fewer phone calls for the office. "We have 5,000 patients who use these services, and they love it," says internist and medical director Mark Schafer.

Just this year, Bristol Park introduced two more Web site tools. The "Personal Health Tracker" lets patients review their history of preventive health screenings and receive reminders when one is due. And consulting specialists can now log on and read portions of a patient's medical chart.

At three-doctor Northern Virginia Family Practice Associates in Alexandria, 95 percent of new patients register online at the group's Web site, shortening their first visit and providing the practice with legible information in advance. FP Patrick Tokarz adds that 10 percent of his established patients complete an online symptom assessment form before making an appointment. "It helps us know whether we should schedule the appointment right away, and for how long," he says.

Of course, the state of the medical practice Web site art continues to evolve. The next big thing will be a personal health record that's available through a practice Web site. Someday it could be a patient's point of entrance into the national health information network envisioned by President Bush.

Whether you want to create a practice Web site, or upgrade what you already have, you need to know what makes a Web site a hardworking extension of your office. We've surveyed the medical wing of the Web to give you answers.

Be sure to include this core content

It's hard to imagine a medical office without exam rooms or a receptionist counter. An online office also has its own key elements, outlined in navigation buttons on the Web site's home page. Labels for this content may vary, but they follow along these lines:

About us. This section is where you describe the mission and history of your practice.

Physician profiles. Don't just paste in your CV. Explain in a few paragraphs what makes you tick as a clinician and person. Include a photo, says Steve Malik, CEO of Medfusion, a healthcare Web site firm in Raleigh, NC. "Patients will choose a doctor they can see over one they can't see."

Some practices also include a section that displays photos, titles, and short job descriptions of staff members. That section serves a dual purpose: it lets patients differentiate people in the office and makes the staff feel good that you recognize them as the integral part of the practice that they are.

Our services. Highlight common conditions that you treat, as well as ancillary procedures such as Botox injections and nutritional counseling. "Web pages about services receive lots of visitors," notes Malik.