Internet becoming a key ingredient for growth and patient satisfaction

A Web site can save you time, educate your patients

How would you like to save time, increase communication with patients, provide comprehensive patient education, and market your practice to potential patients? The solution is not as difficult, miraculous, or expensive as it may seem.

Physicians’ practices across the country are finding that having their own Web sites on the Internet helps them communicate better with patients and fellow practitioners, and in some cases, market their services to potential referral sources and patients.

"The Internet and the World Wide Web are part of a fast-rising new technology that has a lot of promise for being a superb communication mechanism in any business. We believe physicians can use this technology to accomplish what they are trying to accomplish," says Jerry Kelly, executive vice president, physician sales and marketing for Salu.net, a Portland, OR, provider of Internet application services for physicians.

More physicians are jumping on the Internet bandwagon. According to a survey by the American Medical Association (AMA), the number of dedicated Web sites among physicians has increased more than 62% since 1997.

"More and more physicians are recognizing that the Web has the ability to access and distribute a wealth of valuable information that might not be readily available through traditional sources," says Richard F. Corlin, MD, an AMA trustee. "The findings of our study show that the process of integrating the fast-changing world of the Internet into the practice of medicine has significantly quickened."

To take advantage of the burgeoning Internet market and provide credentialed health care information, the AMA and six other medical professional organizations representing about two-thirds of the nation’s physicians have announced the development of Medem.com, a supersite for health care information and links to physician Web pages. (For details, see related article, p. 27, top.)

So far, thousands of physicians have signed up for customized Web pages linked to the Medem.com site, which is expected to be launched later this year.

Is setting up a Web page the right move for your practice? Absolutely, says Eric Golanty, PhD, Oakland, CA-based editor and publisher of "Physician’s Guide to the Internet," an Internet page for physicians.

"Patients expect it — if not now, in the future. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but it is a sign that you are available. . . . very important both clinically and business-wise," he says.

Consider, for instance, this data from the Cybercitizen Health research released late last year by Cyber Dialogue, an Internet database marketing company with headquarters in New York City:

• 54% of people who use the Internet to retrieve health-related information say they would prefer information from their own doctors, but 50% of on-line users say they would be interested in using their doctor’s Web site.

• 91% of those surveyed say they are unaware of a Web site for their doctor’s office.

• 22% of on-line health users report using the Internet to retrieve doctor-related information, but only 4% have used it to access the Web site of their doctors’ offices.

• 48% say they would be interested in e-mailing their doctors, but only 3% are currently communicating with their doctors by e-mail and only 11% are aware of their doctor’s e-mail address

• About one-third say they would be likely to switch doctors to be able to use doctor-provided Web sites or to e-mail their doctors.

"Using the Internet to communicate with doctors’ offices would allow consumers to find answers to many issues, such as questions about a treatment or drug side effects, without an office visit," says Scott Reents, manager of health care strategies at Cyber Dialogue. "A visit to a doctor’s Web site or an e-mail could cut down on unnecessary office visits as well as make consumers more informed about their health."

A boon for private practice doctors

This can be a boon for physicians in private practice who feel threatened by cost-containment mandates from managed care and the dilemmas that result, Kelly points out. For instance, with the increasing pressures on physicians to pack more appointments into a day, you probably have less time to spend on patient education.

Yet, if you’re in a capitated situation or have insurers pressuring you to keep costs down, you recognize the benefits of educating your patients about their disease or condition and how to manage it.

That’s where the Internet comes in. Rather than go over the same routine information numerous times with every patient who has been diagnosed with a particular condition, you can include frequently asked questions and other information on your Web site. (For other ways you can use your Web site, see related article on p. 19).

"The Internet is quite an effective method for patients to get information. Many times patients can get more and better information than physicians would be able to provide in person," Munn adds.

Although most patients may not be on-line yet, the number is growing rapidly.

According to Cyber Dialogue, the number of people using the Internet for health information is growing nearly twice as fast as the Internet population at large. As of July 1999, 24.8 million U.S. adults used the Internet for health information. The figure is projected to increase to 52 million by 2003. (See graph, p. 18.)

Cannot replace face-to-face contact

But, the Internet will never take the place of the personal relationship between patients and doctors. Medicine has been and always will be a relationship business, says Peter Zazzara, executive director for Superior Consultant Co. Inc., a Southfield, IN, consulting firm.

"There will be no substitution for a first-rate, in-person clinical encounter. Unwell people need a human healer," Golanty adds.