Web sites good community outreach tool

Surfers often link to site at teachable moment

Anyone who logs onto the Web site for St. Luke’s Health System in Sioux City, IA, will discover "An Apple a Day," the health education section. This section is used as a community outreach arm to educate the public on health issues and publicize programs and screenings offered by the hospital.

Information on the site changes every two months and is geared to the season and events at the hospital.

"If it is summer, topics would deal with that season. Also, if we are having our cholesterol screening, we would have articles on cholesterol," explains Ruth Eguirre, RN, a health education instructor at St. Luke’s who oversees the site.

More patient and health education departments are discovering the value of the Web. It is a good way to reach people at a "teachable moment," since those who access sites are usually motivated learners seeking information.

At St. Luke’s, various disciplines are invited to write one-page pieces on a topic pertaining to their expertise. Disciplines might include someone from physical therapy, dietary, pharmacy, and nursing. Eguirre edits the copy to make sure it is grammatically correct and written at a sixth-grade reading level.

The "Webmaster," the person who is in charge of the hospital’s Web site, prepares the information for the Internet.

"If we have an article on children and an upcoming program pertaining to kids, the Webmaster will provide links between the information," says Eguirre. The person reading the article would be able to click on a certain spot and link to the program announcement.

Offer educational links, support

Instead of committing staff time to creating and maintaining an education site, managers in the health education department at the Mayo Clinic decided to link consumers to credible Web sites for information and to support the educational components of other department’s Web pages.

"When we first launched our Web site on the Internet, people were asking for information on certain conditions, and we didn’t have the resources to respond to all the requests. Therefore, we decided to create a page called Other Internet Resources," says Donna Wohlhuter, RN, BSN, health education specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, NY. From this page, the user can go directly to a Web site that specializes in the information he or she is seeking, such as the Dallas-based American Heart Association.

Three criteria are used to screen for credible Web sites. They are:

Educational suitability.

Some Web sites are geared to professionals. Only those sites with consumer information are linked to the Mayo site.

Clinical suitability.

Information on the site must be credible and kept current. For example, is the information anecdotal, or can it be validated by research? Also, the site cannot promote a specific product or service. (For more information on how to evaluate a Web site, see Patient Education Management, March 1997, pp. 29-30.)

Ease of use.

The site must be visually appealing and easy to navigate. (For details on how to create an effective Web site, see story, p. 101.)

The Mayo health education department also provides patient education materials for other departments’ sites.

"We don’t want departments to create their own educational material. We want a consistent message in all areas. If both the nutrition and cardiology departments want cholesterol information on their site, we want them to use the same document," explains Wohlhuter.

Patient education managers have many options when creating a Web site. Therefore, determine who you are targeting and what information you want to include.

"You can’t meet everyone’s needs, so you need to set some priorities," says Wohlhuter.

For example, each patient population has a different way of learning. Teen-agers won’t download a leaflet off the site and read it. They like active learning, so you need to provide interactive information.

Know your audience and your objectives, advises Wohlhuter. Is your objective to market materials, promote health, or get people to use your health care services? (For examples of Web sites, see list, at left.)

Also, remember that patients may use information from your site to make medical decisions, so always include a disclaimer.

"Even though it is the same information they receive when they come to our clinics, there is no intervening health care provider when they take the materials off the Web, so we include a disclaimer," says Wohlhuter.