Online and on target
Hospitals add sophistication to their websites, improving value to patients
An important goal of hospital website design is a simple one: Help people find what they’re looking for quickly. And thanks to the ability to record every click and every search, arguments over what people are looking for can be settled fairly easily. So, for every CEO who feels his or her stirring letter to the community deserves the most prominent space on a website’s homepage, there is data to back up the website designer who can show that the “Find a Doctor,” “Locations” and “Jobs” pages are what the community is truly interested in and what winds up driving an institution’s Internet traffic.
Hospital websites also are starting to reflect innovation and maturity with interactive portals that give patients access to their test results, medical bills and doctors’ schedules. Physicians can now introduce themselves via online videos and profiles, and educational materials can be developed based on tracking what visitors key into the site’s search engine.
For a small hospital, creating a basic website can run between $25,000 and $50,000, while a high-end product for a large healthcare system can “easily get into the $1 million to $2 million” range, says Roy Chomko, president of Adage Technologies, a Chicago-based website development, maintenance and hosting company. “The larger the organization, the more complicated it’s going to be.”
Chomko notes how website “heat maps” can be developed that show exactly how web traffic flows, which pages visitors click on and detailed data on specific pages. He says that information can be used to settle arguments about where the physician bios should go and where the CEO’s blog should be placed.
“The way to change their minds,” he says, is to say to the CEO, “Here’s the number of clicks you’re getting, and here’s the number for ‘Find a Doctor’—and we’re giving you prime real estate.”
William Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association, says his organization has been evaluating the websites for 96 industries since 1997, and he notes that most early hospital websites could be classified as “brochure-ware” that didn’t take advantage of the interactive features the Internet offers. “They were a little late to the game because a lot of hospitals didn’t see the immediate value of websites engaging visitors,” Rice says. That’s in part because “a hospital will always count on its affiliated physicians to really drive its business,” he says.
A key function of a hospital website is to highlight an institution’s expertise, but it can also help an organization discover its shortcomings by measuring if visitors are spending a lot of time searching for information on particular services their institution doesn’t offer, Rice says.
According to Rice, hospital websites also have to avoid looking “institutional” and need to offer user-friendly functions such as posting items in English as well as other languages—especially in highly diverse communities—and allowing visitors to increase the size of the text for easier reading.
“One of the things that can really ruin a hospital website is if it’s organized in silos,” Rice says, comparing this type of website to a hospital, where the different departments communicate poorly. “The best websites, as with the best hospitals, have everyone working together.”
Never a finished product
Rice says that websites are perpetual works in progress, and that hospitals need to keep this in mind.
“Sometimes organizations say, ‘We’ve invested all this money. Let’s sit on it for a while until we get our return on investment,” he says.
Ten-hospital Alegent Health, based in Omaha, Neb., took the opposite approach. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, its website won several awards for content and design, but Alegent embarked on a redesign that went live this past December.
“Awards are great, but the goal is to create the best consumer-patient experience,” says Matthew McCahill, Alegent’s eHealth marketing chief.
The redesign also coincided with Alegent’s widespread launch of its MyHealthCare patient Web portal, which offers secure access for request-