What Web Marketing Can Do For Your Practice

By Brian McCurdy, Associate Editor

   Type “DPM” or “podiatrist” into an Internet search engine and name after name of established practitioners will come up, leading to Web sites which may have established in order to market their practices. Many podiatrists have been building Web sites to supplement the traditional methods of reaching patients and facilitate the ability of potential patients to reach them.    A Web site can be a useful tool to communicate with one’s patients, expedite office procedures, detail practical office information and help build a patient base. However, DPMs may have many questions when venturing into the Web world. Which information is effective in marketing a site? What should be avoided? Who can help build a site? How much will it cost?    While DPMs have had varying experiences with this, a good Web site can potentially boost the patient base of your practice. About five years ago, Joshua Kaye, DPM, of Los Angeles, designed and wrote his site himself, and hired a graphic artist for graphics, but handled his own SEO services. He optimized his site for the search engines so the site is ranked very high in both Google and Yahoo searches.     “Patients react very favorably and I get several new patients from it every week,” says Dr. Kaye, a Diplomate of the American Board of Podiatric Surgery. He also uses it as a resource for his existing patients, who use the site for information on a variety of foot problems.    While Vincent Coda, DPM, says patients have reacted “very well” to the site, it has not made a big difference in the number of new patients he sees. His Web site, which costs him a few hundred dollars a year, is colorful and includes office locations and his bio. While the site has not had an impact on his referrals, Dr. Coda, who practices in Kendallville, Ind., says having the site “is more being in the mainstream of today’s podiatry.”    Practice Web sites are the wave of the future, according to Officite President Glenn Lombardi, who notes patients have increasingly begun to leave behind their local Yellow Page directories and turn to search engines like Google and Yahoo to search for local podiatrists. The Internet is also the number one tool patients turn to for research on healthcare information, according to Lombardi.    That said, more sites may lead to perhaps too many choices on the Internet. Stuart J. Mogul, DPM, has written a book and appeared in the media in recent years. People who have seen him or read about him in the media can look up his site through www.Google.com. While the site has been useful in that respect, Dr. Mogul doesn’t feel the site has had a great impact in bringing new patients to his office.     “I guess there are so many podiatry Web sites out there that no site is going to stand out, and standing out is so important in any marketing strategy,” says Dr. Mogul, who launched his Web site in 1998.

What Web Site Content Is Essential?

   So how do you differentiate your practice’s Web site from those of other DPMs in your area? Are you interested in having a Web site but are not sure what is involved? Those in the know recommend starting with the basics when building a Web site, but one should also add elements that will help the practice stand out from the crowd.    When starting the site, it is vital to design it in a way so patients can find one’s practice, says Lombardi. He advises building and designing a practice Web site to ensure maximum search engine optimization benefits so one’s practice Web site is listed high on the search results page for the practice’s area.    In terms of Web site content, David Sabet, DPM, has garnered favorable reactions from patients about his Web site. A Diplomate of the American Board of Podiatric Surgery, Dr. Sabet says his site includes basic information about him, brief descriptions of the most common conditions he treats as well as a list of insurance plans in which his practice participates.    However, one may not want to include too many particulars about insurance plans given the frequency with which they change, notes Michael Rothschild, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist who wrote Building and Implementing Physician Practice Web Sites.    Dr. Rothschild says it is important to list on a site what sets the practice apart from others and what special training the physician may have. Randy Cooper agrees.     “I see it as a marketing tool to inform our Web site guests why our doctor is the best choice for their foot or ankle condition,” says Cooper, the husband of Ruth Ann Cooper, DPM, and the business manager of her practice. “Therefore, credentials and qualifications are essential along with information about what differentiates our practice from the average practice.”    David Zuckerman, DPM, a Fellow of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, concurs, noting that podiatrists should list any procedures that they perform that are unique. He says doing so can help bring in patients outside of your local patient base.

Enhancing Office Efficiency

   Information on one’s site can also enhance a patient’s experience. The site of Tina Starkweather, DPM, includes new patient forms, which patients can submit to the office electronically or print at home and fill out. Scott Starkweather, MBA, oversees the business and technical aspects of his wife’s practice and he says patients enjoy the convenience as the forms eliminate the necessity of having patients come into the office early to fill them out. He also says Dr. Starkweather, who is board certified by the American Board of Podiatric Surgery, can get more complete information with the online forms because people can look up the information while accessing the Web site at home.     “It really keeps things in the office running very smoothly,” Starkweather says of the online forms. “I believe the site has to be interactive, not just a download of information.”    Office registration forms are available on Dr. Sabet’s site as well. He also suggests Web sites should contain basic information such as driving directions and an interactive map.    Although the site includes an e-mail address for the office, Dr. Sabet says the office does not encourage using the address as a method of communication between patients and doctors. He says it is “very useful” for patient interaction with staff from day to day.    Starkweather says the Web site facilitates communication between Dr. Starkweather and patients. He notes the practice gets referrals because patients have had good experience with the online forms and they tell others.    Dr. Sabet adds that basic foot care instructions are available on his site and his office assistant will tell patients to download the instructions. Dr. Sabet notes this can be an advantage because “ … you would be amazed how many patients lose the soaking instructions they left with.”    Regularly updating the information on the site is vital, emphasizes Dr. Sabet, who has updated his site with information on new procedures and other content. He is looking to add short streaming video clips of common podiatric conditions to his site. However, he cautions that it can also be a danger to add too much information.

How A Site Can Increase Your Networking Abilities

   While most DPMs say networking with other physicians is done in person or through other venues, some say their Web sites have facilitated an exchange with other doctors. Starkweather says the Web site has been effective in networking with other DPMs and he adds that some DPMs ask the practice questions after seeing the Web site through a Google search. He says the practice refers some patients to other podiatrists with whom Dr. Starkweather has networked with through the site.    Likewise, Dr. Zuckerman says the site has also helped him in networking with other DPMs. He adds that he has spoken with podiatrists as far away as Australia.

What Kinds Of Costs Do Web Sites Entail?

   Establishing a Web site does require an investment but it does not have to cost a mint. Different DPMs have had wide-ranging experiences with the amount of money they have needed to spend. Several note that marketing one’s practice on the Web can be cheaper than marketing it by other means.    Podiatrists have numerous choices when deciding to market their offices, says Lombardi, who adds that most options have expensive, recurring costs. Advertising in the Yellow Pages alone can cost a typical doctor $3,000 to $10,000 a year and eventually leads to diminishing returns, notes Lombardi. However, a Web site offers DPMs an opportunity to market their practices locally by paying a one-time start-up fee. Depending on one’s business goals and budget, the cost for a professionally designed site can range from $995 to $3,000, according to Lombardi.     “Then they enjoy the lifetime benefit of the Web site and benefits such as new patients, online education and office efficiency,” emphasizes Lombardi. “It is just a matter of educating them on reallocating some of their marketing dollars to a new proven resource.”    Dr. Kaye says costs for a Web site can vary, depending on who does the actual work. These costs may range from thousands of dollars to a few hundred dollars a year. Basic costs, such as obtaining a domain name and host, are very little while graphics, continuous upgrades and maintenance can be costly, according to Dr. Kaye. He says with some commercial Web site producers, the company owns rights to the domain name and copyrighted text, and the DPM pays a monthly fee for the use of the site. Dr. Kaye changes his site regularly based on medical advances, updated information and patient requests.    Cooper says in the first year, he was paying about $300 to $400 in total to develop the site and Yellow Pages charged $130 a month for maintenance. However, he says the traffic on the site was not justifying the expense so he and his wife switched to another host that charges $30 a month. Dr. Sabet says his site is “not a major expense,” noting it cost $500 to design and hosting costs are less than $50 a month. On the other hand, Dr. Mogul spent about $4,000 building his site and says annual maintenance and updates run him $900. Dr. Zuckerman’s site cost $1,500 for the initial design and $300 a year in maintenance.

Should You Hire A Professional To Build The Site?

   Aside from costs, the experts note there are some advantages and disadvantages to building a site oneself or hiring a professional.    In his discussion of Web sites with DPMs and MDs, Dr. Kaye has discovered most are interested in starting a site but are not able or willing to put the site together themselves. “There are several companies that will produce a ‘cookbook’ Web site, but they lack originality,” he comments. In contrast, beware of building the site without having some experience with graphic design, he cautions. A site should look professional and Dr. Rothschild believes homebrewed sites can reflect poorly on a practice.    Lombardi advocates hiring a professional to design a site. “The Web site is a reflection of your practice and is a great way of differentiating your practice from the other 20 podiatrists in your area,” says Lombardi.

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