BY: THOMAS C. LAWRY
Many hospitals and physicians today face serious financial
challenges because of managed care and reimbursement shortfalls
from programs such as Medicare. They respond to these challenges
by cutting costs. But such efforts have a negative impact on
staffing levels, inevitably reducing the time caregivers can
spend with patients.
As a result, consumers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied
with their lack of access to physicians and other caregivers.
Many, seeking information about medical conditions they or their
loved ones face, turn to the Web. Smart health care organizations
are following these consumers online. By using their own websites
to provide information and publicize services, such organizations
can establish (or reinforce) relationships that eventually lead
consumers to use the services themselves.
Today the total online population is growing by two million
new users every month.1 Seventy-three million Americans62
percent of Internet usershave gone on line in search of health
information.2 About six million Americans go online
for medical advice on a typical daymore on any given day, according
to the American Medical Association, than visit health professionals.3
Not only are health consumers turning to the Web; the information
they find there is influencing their interactions with physicians
and hospitals. Two-thirds of the older people who have gone
online for health information report that they later talked
over what they found there with their physicians. Half of the
older people who seek online health information say they are
more satisfied with their treatment as a result of their searches.4
The wonderful thing about the
Web is that it can be used to create one-on-one relationships
with thousands of people at a time. It's an efficient means
of delivering "moment of need" information and services that,
moreover, can be personalized to fit the needs of the particular
Although most hospitals today possess a website, few have
sites designed to, first, provide consumers with an online experience
that meets their information needs, and, second, lead to a relationship
that support the hospital's mission and objectives.
What follow are seven strategies for creating effective online
Provide Information that Consumers Consider Relevant
and Valuable This sounds simple, but most hospital websites
today miss the mark. They provide a lot of informationbut not
much that consumers themselves judge to be valuable.
The information that consumers consider valuable is any concerning
health issues or an actual medical condition that they or
a loved one face at that time. Hospitals commonly make the
mistake of providing on their sites a wide variety of health
topics, but little depth about any given medical condition.
Although most Internet users have at some time gone online to
seek health information, three out of four do so only when they
have specific questions about a medical condition.5 Hospitals
that develop or license health content that is (as the saying
goes) "a mile wide and an inch deep" fail to address the real
needs of the online health care consumer.
Consumers also find value in information and services that
make interacting with health providers more convenient, less
time consuming, and less expensive. They consider a site valuable
if it makes them feel better informed and more capable of making
Focus on Supporting Key Services Health care websites
that attempt to be "all things to all people" tend to be irrelevant
to health care consumers. An effective Web strategy starts by
providing comprehensive information (and an online experience
the consumer will find useful) about three to five of the key
services the hospital provides.
Of course, most hospitals have limited resources to spend
on their websites. They will spend their money more effectively
if, rather than trying to publicize all their services, they
concentrate on doing a good job of explaining and promoting
their top services.
When selecting those top services, the site designers should
consider the hospital's strategic plan, the hospital services
that produce the highest margins, the facility's competitive
position in the marketplace, and existing service line growth
Don't Just Talk about Services OnlineProvide Them Unlike
print media and television, sites on the Web can actually provide
- The website for PeaceHealth,
a five-hospital system in Bellevue, WA, enables users to interact
with their physicians, get prescriptions refilled, schedule
appointments, and review information in their medical records.
- The site for Holy Name Hospital,
Teaneck, NJ, makes it possible for women to sign up for mammography
reminders and schedule mammograms.
By catering to the consumer's convenience, such sites create
an online relationship that can eventually lead him or her to
seek the hospital's services. When designers consider the possible
services they will publicize on their hospital's site, they
should choose those that the site can make more convenient for
the consumer while, at the same time, reducing process steps,
response time, or costs to the organization.
Create Online Relationships by Starting with a "Signal
Event" A "signal event" occurs when a consumer is initially
given information about a health condition that is potentially
life changing. It may be positive: A woman learns that she is
pregnant. It may be negative: A man learns he has diabetes.
In either case, the person involved will be strongly motivated
to acquire information about the medical condition and its treatment
A hospital website should be prepared to guide the newly diagnosed
consumer to the information that he or she needs to begin researching
the diagnosis and assessing treatment options. This will also
be an ideal opportunity for the site to educate users about
the services the hospital provides and to showcase the physicians
and staff they will very likely be turning to for help.
Website content concerning a specific medical condition should
always be directly tied to explaining the hospital's services
and the capabilities of the physicians specializing in that
condition. The site's design should be intuitive, leading even
novice users to information about treatment options and the
services the hospital provides.
When Building Online Relationships, Involve Those Who Bring
the Patients A hospital's website willeven if well-funded
and strategically shrewdbe of little value if it lacks the
input, awareness, and ownership of physicians and other clinicians.
Designers should not be in such a rush to develop their site
that they fail to involve physicians, nurses, and other caregivers
in helping to assess consumer needs and determine the kind of
information consumers are likely to seek.
The Internet is a worldwide medium, whereas most hospitals
provide services to people living within a defined region. One
goal of a hospital website should be attracting what are referred
to as "qualified users"a local person who happens to be dealing
with a medical or health issue. The best way to attract qualified
users is to ensure that physicians and other caregivers have
had input into the information on the site so that they can
recommend it to their patients.
A well-developed hospital website also produces value for
physicians, who are typically inundated with questions from
patients about where to go online for credible health information.
Make your physicians aware of the contents of your site and
ask them to help promote it to patients.
Use a "Clicks and Mortar" Approach to Your Web Services
A website's design, content, and applications should be
geared toward turning information seekers into service users
when the need arises.
Once a user has become familiar with the site content and
information about the hospital's services, he or she should
be encouraged to take some type of action. In fact, the site
should provide an easy way for the user to take action. The
goal is to have a motivated user contact the organization for
more information or a consultation. This can be done through
a secure e-mail link or an online form. A toll-free telephone
number that ties back to a call center is another easy way to
connect web users to the facility.
Be careful, however. Online users who are given the number
for the hospital's main switchboard can easily be lost in the
shuffle. So, too, are users given the e-mail address of a webmaster
who is not in a position to provide timely follow-up on medical
Take Advantage of the Fact that, Even in a "Wired World,"
Health Care Is Local Although thousands of health
care websites are available to consumers, hospitals have the
distinct advantage of being seen as local sources of credible
and trustworthy information. To profit from this advantage,
a hospital must understand that online information seekers usually
go through a two-step process.
Web users who have just been diagnosed as being ill will initially
search the Web for the best available information about that
illness. Once they have gathered specific information about
the illness and its treatment options, they will begin exploring
the treatments and services available in the region. It is at
this crucial moment that a well- organized health care website
can make a difference. By providing information about treatments
offered and success rates, profiles of physician specialists,
and descriptions of support services, a hospital site can help
reduce consumers' anxiety and increase their loyalty to the
hospital. Although a hospital website cannot take the place
of face-to-face contact with a caregiver, it can be an alternative
that provides consumers with easy access to information and
services that they consider important. If done right, a site
will provide a cost-effective means of extending the services
beyond the walls of the organization.
For more information, contact Tom
- U.S. Department of Commerce, "A
Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the
Internet & American Life Project, March 2, 2002, p.
- Pew Internet & American Life Project.
- National Institute of
Health press release, January 1999 .
- National Institute of Health.
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.