The New First Impression

An effective practice website can increase your visibility and demonstrate value to patients — before they can even walk through your doors.the new first impression

If you entered a practice waiting room to find unclear instructions, a disorderly front desk, and outdated information on the walls, how long would you stay? Probably not long.

That's not the kind of first impression any organization wants to make, especially one caring for a patient's health.

Nevertheless, this may be the image you're projecting if your practice's website is difficult to navigate, poorly designed, or out of date. Megan Shields, public relations specialist and copywriter at Aurora IT, a medical website and PR Company in Cold Springs, N.Y., puts it bluntly: "Put yourself in the patient's shoes. Visiting your website is the same as walking into your office for the first time — which they might never do, if they don't like what they see online."

But if your website isn't perfect, you need not despair. You can turn it around and design an effective, positive user experience with just some basic principles. Here's the best advice from practice leaders, business managers, and website designers about what works, what doesn't, and what your patients are looking for when they land on your homepage.

Choose a Web design company carefully

Few practices have the time or expertise to conceptualize and launch an effective website themselves. For this reason, the vast majority work with outside design companies. Shields advises that practices choose a company with relevant experience that can create a custom site, not one based on a premade template. "Purchasing a templated website is essential throwing money away," she says. According to Shields, it's very important to Google algorithms, which determine where your site shows up in search results, that your site is original in terms of design, layout, and content. An experienced web designer can also offer guidance and suggestions based on best practice and online trends.

While outside insights are valuable, even the most experienced designer cannot replace a practice leader's understanding of patients' needs. Be sure you are taking an active role in designing a website that will represent your practice.

Make navigation clear and intuitive

"Everything should be available within one or two clicks because going through seven or eight clicks to get to something that you need becomes just too much. And then people don't use the website you've put so much time into," says Joseph J. Maklansky, MD, a diagnostic radiologist partner at New York Medical Imaging (NYMI) Associates in New York City. "There's so much you can put on a radiology website. The trick is to keep it simple and user friendly."

Don't neglect your content

When it comes to online text, Shields stresses simplicity. "Less is more," she says. "There's a lot that you can communicate on your site, but it's best to do it in smaller chunks of information. Going to any website and seeing paragraph after paragraph of copy isn't very inviting."

One way to break up information into accessible pieces is to use bullet points or frequently asked questions. "It's great for medical entities because people always ask a lot of the same questions," says Sikorsky.

Keep things fresh

"The content should be updated on a fairly regular basis," says Shields, "but that doesn't mean you have to rewrite your whole site every month." Choose certain areas to update more frequently, such as new services, relevant research, or practice events. Then use the homepage to highlight these updates.
Sikorsky sets aside time each Friday to evaluate and update the website content, focusing on practice news. "The thing that I've learned," she says, "is that if you don't schedule time to update the website, other things kind of take over your day."

Use your website to demonstrate value

An effective website tells patients why they should choose your practice and, by extension, why they should trust you as a physician. "If you're a specialist with meaningful results in your field, get that information front and center," says Shields. Such online, patient-friendly features as appointment scheduling, printable forms, or billing tools should also be displayed prominently.

And don't forget your referring physicians. The last time NYMI Associates revamped its site, it added separate portals for patients and physicians. "It was very important to us that we provide the correct information to the correct audience," says Ed Hurtado, MBA, administrative director at NYMI Associates. During the design phase and after the new site's launch, NYMI radiologists asked for feedback from their referring physicians. The dual portal design was enthusiastically received, so much so that the practice began getting more specific requests. "We would get a phone call saying, 'Can you add a specific form to the physician's portal for us?'" says Maklansky. "It just makes it much quicker and easier for everybody."

By Lyndsee Cordes

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