How To Market Your Practice On The Internet

Author(s): 
By Robert J. Smith, Contributing Editor

As we draw closer to the close of the century’s first decade, we see that technology is more ubiquitous than ever as it reaches into virtually every aspect of our lives and businesses. Nowhere is this more apparent or relevant than in medical practices, which have opened themselves to the Web in everything from billing to dispensing and prescriptions.
Marketing a practice on the Web is possibly the most widely used application of Internet technology. One essential reason justifies the creation and maintenance of a practice Web site: patients expect it.

“It is a critical part of running a practice in the 21st century,” concurs Bruce Werber, DPM, who practices at the Arizona Institute of Footcare in Mesa, Ariz. “Society is becoming more Web-based and more Web-savvy. As we deal with more technologies like Blackberries and iPhones, the need for an electronic presence becomes more crucial.”
If nothing else, the affordability of the technology will ensure the critical need for a Web presence, explains Dr. Werber.
“For example, iPhones were $600 last year. Now they are $200 and the price will likely come down more at some point,” says Dr. Werber. “Patients are smarter. They expect you to have this kind of presence. If you are not out there, you are not going to attract new patients to your practice.”
“Most small businesses have some sort of Web presence,” explains Glenn Lombardi, the President of Officite, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based Web design and marketing firm that specializes in the medical community.
“You have a podiatry practice. You have spent money on your facilities, your office and your equipment. You have spent money on a sign. You need to have a sign on the Internet,” he says. “It is the number one place people research medical information. It is becoming a strong area for people who are looking for doctors.”
Chad Schwarz, Director of Patient and Community Relations for the New Jersey-based Affiliated Foot and Ankle Center, LLP, sees practice Web sites as the latest part of a long continuum. In the past, he says if people were looking for a practice, they relied on word of mouth, the Yellow Pages or 411, much of which the Internet has superceded.
“A solid Web presence can validate the practice in somebody’s mind and also give them a true feel for the practice itself,” says Schwarz. “It has really become an extension of the practice or the business as a whole.”

Using The Web Site As A Resource For Patient Education
Lombardi agrees with Schwarz’s assessment. He views a practice site as a kind of ongoing virtual resource patients can use and return to when they need questions answered.
“A lot of podiatrists have an older clientele so if a patient comes in and is diagnosed with something, and given a treatment plan, he or she might go home and not be able to remember what was explained in the office,” points out Lombardi. “The Web site then becomes a great tool to educate that patient’s family members or spouse on what is wrong and what the treatment is going to be.”

“I was really motivated to put an educational aspect into the site,” notes Schwarz. “I want to use our Web site as an educational resource to teach the community about foot and ankle care. If it gets to the point where people need foot and ankle care, we want them to be as informed as possible, and provide them with that care the best that we can.”
Dr. Werber has seen the result of such an approach in his patients. He explains that his patients will see the Web site and go to the office with good questions, seeking further information on their conditions. Dr. Werber adds that patients like the site because they can present to the office with information and “have a better, more informed discussion with the doctor.”

Key Tips On Marketing Your Marketing
Having a strong Web site to market your practice presents something of a circular challenge. How do you best market the site created to market you?
Schwarz advocates a blanket approach of putting the Web site on business cards, patient forms and anything (such as t-shirts or calendars) the practice may give out. His practice has put the Web site in staff’s e-mails along with a hyperlink.
Lombardi provides some more ideas. He suggests that when patients enter the practice’s reception area, they should see a sign advertising the practice’s Web site. Practices should include (the Web site) in any kind of advertisement they might have, emphasizes Lombardi.
“It is difficult for podiatrists to get their message out in advertisements so they should, in their ads, speak to the patient about what his or her pain point might be,” suggests Lombardi. “For example, they could ask, ‘Do you have heel pain? We can help you.’”
Lombardi says a simple message like that can drive people back to the Web site so they can get more information or make an appointment. He suggests having the Web site as the focal point of every advertisement the practice buys. He adds that “the wealth of information you can make available online far outstrips the amount of information you could ever put in an ad.”
Dr. Werber puts it very simply: “Anywhere I communicate to anyone, my Web site is mentioned.”

How To Maximize Your Visibility On Google
Site visibility is essential to patients finding your practice on the Web and the place where a majority of users go to find practice and medical information (or just about anything else) is Google, the Web’s most popular search engine. If your site is not seen on Google, it is for all intents and purposes invisible. Fortunately, Google offers a number of useful applications to maximize your site’s visibility.
Officite makes a point of providing clients with search engine optimization and has some tips on being visible on Google.
“You want a site’s address to come up on the left side on the first page of a Google search,” says Lombardi. “What drives that is great content. If you have solid patient education content on your site, eventually it will come up on the left side.”
Lombardi also suggests using Google’s Local Business Center. As he explains, patients enter their town and “podiatrist” into the search, and Google provides a map with a listing of podiatrists in the area. Practice owners can update that information, verify it and list their Web address so the user will have a quick link to the practice’s Web site, according to Lombardi. Finally, Lombardi notes, your practice should use Google’s AdWords, the search engine’s sponsored link application, which displays advertisements along with search results.

Dr. Werber, who works with Lombardi’s company in maintaining his Web presence, attests to the power of Google tools.
“I come up so often in Google searches, even when the user does not put in my name,” he explains. “It is just phenomenal. By using AdWords and other tools, I have a serious presence on the Web.”
Google’s Geo-Targeted Search is also helpful, explains Lombardi. The patient’s IP address can indicate his or her geographic location. Anyone within a certain radius of your practice who searches Google for keywords such as “bunions” or “heel pain” may see your ad show up in the Google Sponsored Link section, says Lombardi. He notes that the practice only pays if the user clicks on it. He says the practice can set up the link to take the user directly to the page on the practice site that deals specifically on the topic for which the user is searching.
“If the keyword is ‘bunions,’ the practice can drive the user directly to their bunions page,” points out Lombardi. “Immediately, that practice becomes the expert on bunions for that patient and there is a much higher likelihood that patient will go to that practice to deal with his or her bunion problem.”

Can The Web Site Enhance Office Efficiency?
Once patients reach your site, they must see content there that solves a problem or provides information they need to make an informed decision about their foot care. One of the basic things to include on a site is office information. This could be in the form of directions to your office, your practice’s payment policy, deductible collection and other basic transactional data. By incorporating your site into your practice’s office protocols and processes, you can also make the patient’s visit easier and more efficient.
Lombardi says patients can go to the practice’s Web site before they go to the office, download health history and HIPAA forms, and fill them out. He says doing this ahead of time “works out to a time savings of about 10 to 15 minutes per patient, particularly with new patients. Most podiatrists see anywhere between 20 to 40 new patients per week so this is a huge time saver.”
Affiliated Foot and Ankle Center uses this approach, particularly with new patients and Schwarz agrees that it works.
“It speeds up the process considerably,” says Schwarz. “We are able to get patients in faster than we would have had they waited to fill the forms out here. We put our interactive Web site into the systems of our office in many ways but that is a big one. It is an efficiency tool for us that works really well.”

How Web Sites Put A Face On Your Doctors And Staff
Another useful approach in a site is giving patients information about the physicians (and possibly the staff) in your practice.
“In the typical podiatry practice, the practice is the doctor so I am very big on having general information about the podiatrist, the partners or associates on the Web site,” says Lombardi.
Lombardi calls it “imperative” to have general information on the site about who the patient is coming to see, what the DPM’s specialties are, etc., so the patient can be comfortable with the doctor prior to presenting. He says having this information readily available is particularly useful when the patient receives a referral.
“The number one source of new patients for podiatrists is the referral from MDs,” notes Lombardi. “Offering the MD the ability to send the patient to the podiatrist’s Web site prior to going to the podiatric office helps the patient and the referring MD be much more comfortable.”
Schwarz goes even further with the biographical information as he incorporates multimedia to introduce the practitioner to the patient.
“We have audio interviews with the physicians so the patient can get a feel for the doctor and be more comfortable with the prospect of working with the doctor,” explains Schwarz. “One of the coolest parts of the site is the News Articles section of our home page. I have also collected articles by and about our doctors, from the present and the past, and we broke them down by categories and posted them for patients and prospective patients to read.”
Schwarz notes that patients like to know that their doctor is known for certain types of treatments and that he or she has written articles on relevant subjects.
Schwarz stresses the importance of the organization of his site’s Press section. “The categorization makes it less complicated,” emphasizes Schwarz. “Most other sites will just throw articles or article links out there. They will list, say, 50 things, in no particular order. That is like mind overload for a visitor.”

Do You Want To Provide E-Mail Access?
Offering direct e-mail connection to a practice or even a specific doctor also helps patients get to know more about their conditions and the podiatrists treating those conditions. Dr. Werber insists on e-mails coming directly to him.
“It is easier that way,” he says. “I always have my Blackberry so anywhere I happen to be, I can deal with an e-mail. Either I answer it myself or forward it to the appropriate person right away. Some might think it is time-consuming but it is not. It actually makes my life easier. Messages are not sitting around on Post-It notes, waiting for me to sit down at my desk.”
However, establishing e-mail connections with patients carries a number of privacy concerns. While this should not stop your practice from engaging in e-mail interactions, you do need to be aware of certain compliance issues (see “Keys To Making Your Site Compliant With HIPAA” below).

Understanding The Challenges Of Keeping The Site Up To Date
In addition to keeping communication lines open, a practice must keep its content up to date. Many practices funnel content updates through their Web designers, preferring to outsource the work rather than update the site themselves. Lombardi has seen the results of updates performed by doctors or practice staff unfamiliar with the tools required to put content on the Web.
“The downside with that approach is that typically things aren’t aligned properly,” explains Lombardi. “The fonts do not look right. The pictures do not line up appropriately on the page. Things start to look a little hokey and a little less professional. With our company, we have it set up so that if the doctor makes the changes, our developers are notified automatically so we can go in just to take a look and make sure the formatting and such is correct.”
Schwarz says he maintains a close relationship with the designers of his practice’s site and this facilitates quick content updates. He says being timely is key, especially when the practice is involved with the press or if you want a recent event on your site.
“These things are only going to be present in the mind of the community and your patient base for a certain amount of time. If it takes weeks for an update to happen, it is old news,” says Schwarz. “Timing is the most important thing to consider when you have someone else do this. You need to ensure that you will be able to get the site updated in a timely fashion.”
Dr. Werber agrees timeliness is important but admits that culling content for updates is challenging.
“I have a whole list of things I need to do to get the site more up to date,” he says. “The problem is getting the material together, getting the right pictures and forwarding it to the people who update the site. That is the most difficult part for me. You have to do it cohesively. Time gets away from you though.”

In Conclusion
Ultimately, the purpose of the site is providing useful information and communication to patients who need them, and to make those patients as comfortable as possible as they make decisions about their health.
“A lot of patients, even though they get referred, still will not go to a podiatrist just because they are uncomfortable,” notes Lombardi. “If you give them an informative Web site to visit, they are more likely to be comfortable enough to visit your practice to address their foot issues.”

Mr. Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Cleona, Pa.

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