Web site can greatly bolster efforts to educate patients, bring care into the home

Best sites leverage crucial information

Imagine giving 6.4 million tours of your facility in a single year. Now imagine doing it without adding a single staff person, enlarging your parking facilities, or overwhelming your reception area. That’s just what the University of Michigan Health Systems in Ann Arbor did last year.

"In 1999, we had more than 6.4 million user sessions on our Web site," says Kallie Bila Michels, Web coordinator for the system. "In the health topics area alone, we had 700,000 user sessions in 1999, which are up from 250,000 in 1998, and we don’t expect it to drop any time soon."

It’s no wonder that the Health Information Resource Center, a national clearinghouse for consumer health information programs and materials, gave the facility’s Web site at www.med.umich.edu a national award.

Your Web site as an extension of your hospital

Success depends not so much on generating traffic to your site, but on what you provide for that traffic once it is there.

"We wanted the Web site to be an extension of what we do in the real world, which is to be a health care resource for people," says Michels. "The Web site is a really good way for people to gain information about health in general, but especially about personal subjects. Sometimes, people are reluctant to speak, even on the telephone, to someone about subjects like HIV or cancer. Making the Web site available for people to obtain general health information and get answers to their private health questions can be a great service to our community. So, we encourage our physicians to let their patients know about the site. Many people also use the site as the initial way to gather information, and then they follow up with a telephone call."

The statistics garnered from the medical center’s Web site prove that a top-notch site can do double, or even triple, duty as an educational resource, public relations tool, and time-saving mechanism for a facility — all while saving impressive dollar amounts. "We’ve calculated that our Web site saves us 6,800 hours, or 42.5 FTEs, per month by giving people information, such as directions to the facility, test procedures, health information, and what to bring with them to an appointment. We also have many people who use our on-line appointment forms to make an appointment, as well as many people who use the site to find an appropriate telephone number and then make a telephone call to it," Michels says.

A Web site is a living document

The nature of Web sites is that they can be as fluid and flexible as you want them to be. They can be changed, refined, and updated whenever the need arises, so a Web site need never become stale or ineffective. Specially designed programs allow Webmasters to gather detailed information about which pages draw the most people and how long the viewers stay on the page. Such programs can give statistical data about the Internet origin of visitors, and it can also show the length of time spent on each page.

To ensure that it continues to be a valuable tool for the community and the facility, the site is evaluated monthly and then refined based on the statistical information, Michels says.

"We determine what the people want most from the site according to the location of the page hits. We are now redesigning the site to make it even easier for them to get what they want more quickly," she says.

When determining what people want from a Web site, consider the needs of your staff, as well as the community. For instance, Miami Children’s Hospital’s site (http://www.mch.com) offers extensive physician resources, including information on postgraduate programs, residency training, the medical library, journals, LifeFlight, and a physicians’ database.

One way Altoona Hospital in Altoona, PA, kept people on its site was to add the daily pollen count to its site at www.altoonahosp.org. Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA (www.emersonhospital. org), has an on-line page where patients and family may post their personal stories about their stay in the hospital. The site also has an interactive town map that brings up information about the community and how the hospital is involved.

Understanding the impatient consumer

It seemed quite improbable several years ago that anyone would be able to access high-level, health care information without trekking down to the library and spending a large chunk of time locating and leafing through journals and tomes. To carry that information back home would entail making copious notes or copying page after page — a rather laborious, time-consuming process. In stark contrast, today’s educated, technologically savvy health care consumer expects accurate, professional health care information to not just appear on the computer terminal, but to appear there within nanoseconds. A good Web site grants that wish, or at least tries to.

Studies show that Web users grow weary if pages take more than a few seconds to load. They may impatiently jump ship to another site while the impressive photograph of your serenity garden fountain is just beginning to appear. If the health care information is poorly constructed and confusing, you may lose your surfer to a powerhouse site that makes the Dewey decimal system look sloppy. An expert Web site designer can design your site to take into account such issues.

When visitors come to your site, more often than not they are seeking some kind of information that they may want to print. Sites that are not print-friendly force the visitor to waste time and paper trying to print and then to write the information. Also keep in mind that white letters on anything other than a dark background may be invisible to a printer. A well-designed site makes sure that the information may be easily printed and can be seen once it prints.

Visitors are usually annoyed at pages that are too wide for their monitor, causing them to scroll back and forth. A patchwork of boxes and frames has the same annoyance factor.

Finally, consider your viewing audience when you determine the size of your Web site’s type. If you can assume that many of your visitors wear glasses, you may want to make sure that they can easily read your pages. Finally, having to search through page after page of information to find something as simple as your address or general telephone number will result in permanently losing a Web site viewer. Make the most-requested information conspicuous or easily found.

A Web site can be a valuable tool for your community, patients, staff, administration, and your public relations efforts. Now it is the time to make the most of that opportunity and create or enhance your site.

Typical Web site components

Here is a list of standard Web site components and what they do:

Home page — The first page that comes up on the site. It should give broad information such as a brief facility overview, the address, and general telephone number. It may also have the mission statement and visiting hours.

Services — A guide to the clinical services offered. This page may include references to satellite clinics.

History — A brief historical overview of the facility.

Resources — Information on a range of topics from health information, on-line publications, print resources, and other Web links. One hospital lists links that are chosen by the medical staff.

Contact — Information about how to contact departments, administration, the Web master, and possibly medical staff. This page may include a telephone and e-mail directory.

Search — Function which allows a visitor to find a topic on the Web site by entering a keyword.

Facility news and events — Description of developments within the facility, special events such as screenings, open houses, classes, support groups, educational talks, and lectures, and the facility’s community involvement. It may also have the community and staff newsletter on-line.

Copyright and disclaimer — description of the copyright, the site and its contents, and explanation that the information on the site is strictly for informational purposes and is not to be construed as medical advice.

Added to the typical Web site components, pages for the following topics could elevate your site from a good site to a great one:

Map and driving directions — There are several map and driving directions programs available, often for free, that allow someone to view and print directions to your facility from their location.

Admission information — Detailed information about the process, where to go, where to park, what to bring, and what to expect.

Virtual tour — A tour of some of the facility’s areas of interest to prospective patients, such as the chapel, cafeteria, gift shop, birthing rooms, rehabilitation areas, and patient rooms.

Patient condition — A password-protected site so that family and friends may check a patient’s condition on-line. Patients are issued a password upon admission and may share it with whomever they choose.

Virtual nursery — a photograph and brief information about a newborn so that family and friends may see the baby, leave messages, and download a photograph. Inclusion on this page would require a written release from the parent and would be password-protected unless the parent agrees in writing otherwise. Atlanta’s Northside Hospital’s site at www.northside.com has an on-line nursery, as does Somerset Hospital in Somerset, PA, on their "Baby Faces" page at www.somersethospital.com.

Appointment forms — A way for patients to make an appointment on-line, have it confirmed, and then print the information.

Gift shop — General information about the gift shop, such as hours and merchandise, also allowing the on-line purchase and delivery of flowers, gifts, or sundries to a patient or staff member.

Giving and volunteering opportunities — Highlights regarding how someone may support the facility or become a volunteer. It could also list benefactors and others who contribute.

International page — Information for non-English-speaking patients and their families using a language selector. An example of this is on The Cleveland Clinic Foundation’s site at www.clevelandclinic.org.

Employment opportunities — A list of available positions with description, qualifications, and how to apply. An on-line application form and place to send a cover letter and resume to human resources may be useful. Some facilities list benefits, as well.

Medical and staff resources — A password-protected area with information about training, awards, new hires, CMEs, the employee manual, on-line suggestion box, and other nonpublic topics. An on-line supply or requisition page could be useful, as well.

Media information — Contact information including names of authorized spokespersons, titles, telephone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and after-hours contact information should be on this page. This could also house a list of people and their area of expertise who are available for interviews and as speakers. The most current press releases, as well as a searchable archive of press releases and background information should also be on-line.

Favorites button — A function that allows someone to place your site on their favorites list with the simply click of the mouse.

Some hospital Web sites host on-line message boards or meeting rooms where patients, staff, and the community can discuss issues ranging from specific health care concerns (such as an on-line support group for cancer survivors) to budgeting concerns. Depending upon your software, these virtual gathering places may be private or public. You may also want to use the site for a virtual Q&A session for your community.

Some sites allow patients to send questions and feedback about their progress directly to their physician or physician’s office. Those kinds of interactive tools keep your visitors coming back and let them take ownership of your hospital even when they are not physically there.

It is up to you, not your Web site designer, to make sure that your site does what you want it to. Although Web site designers have a great deal of technical expertise, many times they are not very good at editing or even understanding your objectives. Remember that, with any luck at all, your Web site will be viewed by millions of people from all walks of life and that they will judge you on its professionalism.