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Doctors, dentists, mental health professionals, counselors, and other health care providers have some of the widest-ranging sites imaginable in terms of various elements usually present on the web site. Most likely, this reflects the practitioner's affiliation, or lack thereof, with a larger health care organization. Those affiliated with large hospitals may have no web site to speak of, save a possible brief mention somewhere within a huge hospital site or maybe on some HMO directory.

For smaller, independent practitioners, it still varies depending on a lot of particulars. Let's be frank here: Most medical doctors and dentists are in a hugely different world financially (and, in turn, marketing-budget-wise) than, say, counselors or naturopaths. So, while "health care" is the broad umbrella, it's a little tough to generalize about best practices. Still, I think we can speak mostly high-level here, and then discuss some aspects of a web site that most average size medical practices would find valuable.

10 Most Important *Basic* Web Site Elements for Health Care Providers

  • Well developed, on-point content -- current and prospective patients deserve 100% clear, easy-to-read, and accurate descriptions
  • Proper disclosures and compliance (HIPAA, etc.) -- get 'em in there, and know what they say!
  • About us / practice history -- to offer a level of assurance to people that you're professional, experienced, and trustworthy
  • Contact information / inquiry form -- and, if you're savvy, a more thorough intake form / system
  • Privacy policy and terms of service -- more generic than HIPPA-stuff, but still important, esp. for larger practices with arguably more exposure financially
  • Service specifications -- the more content, the better, and not just for SEO, but for good old-fashioned informational use. Put a page up about every type of situation you serve; it'll be appreciated.
  • SEO Optimizations (meta tags, etc.) -- yep, even doctors need to compete these days. Some seem to really take off wth this item. Having an optimized site, and linking up with decent off-site healthcare resources is a great start.
  • Practitioner and staff bios -- again, super-important, as it speaks to the trust and assurance angle that so many are looking for. Also, it humanizes the practice and sets patients at ease -- super important for a lot of medical practices, where consumers may harbor a lot of fear about coming in
  • Data capture / list building / autoresponders, newsletters, etc. -- all pure, time-honored Internet marketing best practices. Other industries use these; there's no reason your practice can't use them too.
  • Security Considerations -- if it's financial or health information (or both!), it needs to be secure. So, for example, if you're a health care practice taking payments online... wow, you better focus on this!

I have to admit some ignorance here, as it's been a while since I've worked with health care clients. Years ago (in the early 2000's), the company I was a marketing director for had a consulting division that, from time to time, kept me busier than the whole rest of the business. That division specialized in a few industry niches -- Master Builder construction accounting software, PM2000 property management software, and MediSoft medical practice management software. Between that and my previous career exposure to healthcare legal publications, I learned quite a bit about the important topics of the day strictly through the kind of osmosis that exists when you're marketing these things.

Marketing is a learning-centric profession, by the way. That's because, in order to market something effectively, you have to learn a lot about it in order to express the benefits that product or service offers to the target market. So, it's not uncommon for a marketing professional to become quite knowledgeable about the day-to-day life of, say, a medical office professional. I think what typically happens is something like this:

  • Some difficulty exists for which a product or service could be developed to make life easier for the target market. It could be a typical industry issue or challenge, a completely new innovative approach to an industry problem, or maybe new law or regulation. Take HIPAA, for example. Clinton signed that into law in 1996, but it didn't really get rolling for a few years -- and now it's fairly common knowledge.
  • The professionals within the industry (and the consultants specializing in that industry) take action on whatever it is. In this case, it's things like "Well, how will HIPAA affect this or that?" New products and services emerge from this step.
  • It eventually trickles down to the marketer. What happens (and this is pretty much what happens in every single industry, and for every single product or service) is this: The marketer gets told the whole background, and then we discuss the marketing implications, challenges, opportunities, etc. with the entrepreneur or developer of whatever it is we're marketing. Hopefully, marketing gets involved sooner in the process rather than later because, believe it or not, a lot of marketing (regardless of industry) comes down to the same set of core practices, all of which benefit from early involvement (often shaping the product or service dramatically from its original design). Plus, as "outsiders" we quite often serve as that important set of eyeballs that takes nothing for granted.

For health care providers, the working relationship with a web developer is also very much like this. What works best is for you to provide as much detail as possible about your business objectives. (And, yes, we often work under NDAs! So, if you've cured cancer, but you're not yet ready to tell the world about it, you can work with us on such things.)

So, let's take a look at some of the more essential web elements for health care web site. At this stage in this whole series of industry best practices, I'll focus a bit less on the obvious benefits of some items. I hope it's clear to all, for example, that well-developed, on-point content is important for many reasons.

One thing I really wanted to drive home in this article is that, as Content Management Systems mature and evolve, I think there is a growing gray area between a web site's marketing function (that is, it's outward-facing role) and its potential administrative function (above and beyond managing the content of a site, that is). For health care practices, there's great potential for streamlining back-office work by integrating a web site with the practice management functionality -- at least in theory, anyway. For some, it could mean simply providing an electronic means for filling out forms formerly done on paper. For others, it could mean a much more robust integration with the practice management software.

Of course, this all becomes difficult when we're seeing practice management software being integrated with other systems such as electronic health records. So, ultimately, this is likely the concern of very large IT companies specializing in health care. At least, if Marketing Portland happened to be a large maker of medical software, I'd be looking for sure at expanding the reach of that software into marketing. But, for smaller or medium-sized practices where these things are still more separated, there still likely lies a good bit of efficiency to be gained by integrating various patient forms into a protected area of your web site. Make sure to bring that up while thinking of a new or redesigned site!

In other words, don't think of your web site as merely a marketing tool. Marketing is one aspect of it (likely the most important one), but there is the larger platform of web-based technology to be leveraged here while you're at it. Patient forms, appointment setting, CRM, and online payment via credit cards are all great example of this -- even if your site isn't fully integrated with a larger practice management or EMR suite.

On a separate note... I'm also seeing, across many industries, a lot of rating-type sites emerging. Think of Yelp! for the health care practitioner. Increasingly, online reputation is becoming an issue for a lot of industry businesses. So, taking charge of this as much as possible is probably worth considering. It could be as simple as allowing testimonials to be submitted on your web site -- all the way to integrating with outside services or APIs that do this.

Finally, I'll close with noting that certified medical professionals have a super advantage over a lot of other general health sites. If you're an M.D. or a D.D.S. or a Ph.D., you have the standard certification that allows you to make some types of public claims on your site that might run some others into trouble. Naturally, many in this group are going to be rather conservative in nature, and that's understandable. But, from a pure marketing angle, you really do have a leg up on a lot of others in terms of authority. So, you CAN market ... but are you doing it?

Surgeon photo by Phalinn Ooi (Flickr, creative commons).

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