All businesses need to consider at some point in their lifecycle the issue of how to promote themselves to get their message out to potential customers. Maybe it is because they are newly established, there has been a change in ownership, a move of office location, a change to office hours, new partners or associates joining the firm or new products and services have become available. Medical practitioners and medical practices are no different.
A medical practitioner or medical practice is a business regardless of whether it has broader social and charitable aims: it employs staff, rents business premises, and must pay business taxes.
I write this article from first hand experience: I have helped my wife, a medical specialist, and her colleagues establish a new medical practice and have been given latitude to assist particularly with the online marketing and advertising activities. Their experience is that approximately 30% of new patients have come from the Internet to some degree – others quote as many as 80%. This has certainly helped to defray some of the high start up costs of establishing a practice. The website has also become a useful resource for patients and reduced the need to distribute information in a printed form.
Traditional promotion techniques
The traditional focus of promoting medical services is based on physical location, print advertising and networking. Locating a medical practice on a busy corner, near a shopping centre or other location with high visibility combined with clear signage is a simple way to ensure that people know where to find you.
Print advertising may take the form of a listing in the White Pages, Yellow Pages or other print directory, advertising in local papers and specialist publications such as medical journals, College newsletters or AMA publications.
Building a good reputation amongst medical colleagues, friends and other businesses is also important. In the case of specialists they need to establish a reputation amongst general practitioners to ensure referrals. In the case of a new medical practice networking might involve approaching nearby overworked colleagues who may be all too eager to reduce their workload, or these colleagues may simply remember their own experience in establishing a practice.
All these traditional (off line) techniques remain important however in an increasingly online world their importance is gradually diminishing.
Why do doctors establish websites?
There is no doubt that an increasing number of patients are using the online medium for entertainment, education, communication, and indeed as their first point of call to find information. So much so that the verb ‘Google’ has entered popular language, and even the dictionary, and has become synonymous with searching on the Internet. With over a trillion pages on the Internet in July 2008 there is information, and misinformation, about even the most arcane and niche topics.
A website gives a doctor a relatively economical way (at nearly zero variable cost) to reach the estimated 75% of the Australian population that uses the Internet. A recent World Internet study shows that nearly a quarter of Australians seek health information online at least once a month, and nearly one in eight people search on a weekly basis. This is a big change to the traditional methods of finding answers to health questions and concerns.
The medium also has a number of other advantages as well as being nearly ubiquitous:
• it can be searched readily
• it allows a practically unlimited amount of space and time to communicate a message
• it is available 24/7
• it can be readily updated as things change
• it supports rich forms of communication like video and graphics, and
• it can support a two way conversation/dialogue.
This is the potential of the online medium. Rarely is this potential fully exploited by doctors.
The patients’ perspective
Although the subject of a doctor’s website is the doctor and her practice, the audience of a website is the public and other doctors.
The public and your patients benefit if you have a website as you are opening up another communication channel. Accessing your website gives a patient the opportunity to find out more about you, your style of practice and treatment philosophies before deciding to make an appointment. A patient may more readily make an appointment with someone who they have read about rather than someone who is just a name and phone number. If you don’t have a website or your website doesn’t make a favourable impression then you may never get the opportunity to demonstrate to the person the caring experience you provide, your proficiency or skills.
There are a variety of ways you can make an unfavourable impression – these may arise from how the potential patient perceives the tone or purpose of your website (eg maybe too aggressive or pushing surgical intervention) or may be as simple as out of date information (eg where you now practice, a phone number that doesn’t work), a slapdash attitude to grammar and spelling or a hard to navigate website.
Do you have a website?
There is no definitive list of websites maintained by doctors in Australia however based on my best estimates there are only a few hundred medical practitioners with a website today out of a practising medical practitioner population of roughly 60,000. The standard varies: some are no more than a brief one page biography with contact information; others have obviously been lovingly put together over a long period of time with professional graphics, multimedia, and include extensive patient educational information.
Setting up a website need no longer be a complex undertaking. There are many options ranging from doing it yourself using freely available tools to hiring a professional web developer to provide a complete solution. You can spend a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. The key to an effective website is to have a clear purpose and vision for what you want to achieve and to spend time providing quality content. It is difficult to find someone else who has the skills, understanding of your discipline, and passion to write effectively about you and your style of practice.
There is a great diversity in the kind of information and resources provided on doctors’ websites today. A list of some of these is below. If you have a website or are thinking of establishing one you can use this as a checklist to determine what you regard as appropriate information and content. You should carefully consider what your patients would value and what you are comfortable in providing. Some practitioners opt for providing basic information and some towards very detailed information including personal information, declarations of (potential conflicts of) interests and surgical complication rates.
• Contact information
• Area of practice or specialty
• Doctor’s biography
• Location, map (sometimes interactive) and directions
• Pictures and qualification of staff
• Email address
• Pictures of the practice
• Available services and or equipment
• Educational links or content about conditions and treatment
• Published articles
• Downloadable patient forms eg registration forms for new patients
• Presentations delivered at conferences
• Declarations of interest
• Online credit card billing
• Online satisfaction surveys
• Online tools eg to calculate an estimated due date for pregnancy
• Blogs (a form of online diary and discussion) about medical and non medical subjects
• Health news and updates from journals and the media
• Subscription to practice newsletter
• Pictures and/or videos/animations of procedures
• Audits of outcomes of surgery/surgical complication rates
• Awards, newspaper articles and TV appearances
• Printable patient self management forms and diaries eg food diaries
You can see from the list while many of the types of information have simple analogs off the Internet, others involve a new way of having a relationship and dialog with a patient outside the traditional doctor-patient consultation. These provide you with a way of delivering rich and detailed information to patients at their own convenience however they also represent challenges in ensuring the information you communicate is clear and will not be acted upon without proper medical supervision or regard for their particular circumstances.
Having your own website gives you complete flexibility to determine how you wish to present yourself on the Internet rather than being limited by the space and format restrictions of others. It also gives the public a focal point with up to date information for your practice and where you can begin to establish a virtual rapport prior to any consultation.
Searching for information about your colleagues will often show you examples of good, and not so good, attempts at providing a useful resource and effective online presence.
I encourage you to search for your own name or that of your practice on the Internet and see how your patients can find you today. Even if you don’t have a website you may find that information about you has found its way onto the Internet. People may be relying on that information as your presence on the Internet. It may even be factually incorrect.
If you want to find further information about some of these topics, comment on the article or ask a question of the author please visit the AusMedWeb blog.
Ben Armstrong is a business executive with Telstra Business, a non-executive director of AMPCO, the AMA’s publishing company and acts as the webmaster and IT manager at Obstetrics & Gynaecology Consulting Group. The views in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent any organisation with which he is associated.