Without an integrated communications plan overseeing your Web site, you aren’t making the most of your site. Here’s how to extend continuous improvement efforts from the real world into cyberspace. Of all the questions any manager must ask when it comes to Web sites, perhaps none is more important than one simple word—why. Why bother having a Web site in the first place? What purpose will it serve? Just as simple is the answer—in modern healthcare, Web sites are seen as a differentiating factor in the overall quality of an organization. 

Searching for healthcare information online is right up there with looking for news about Britney Spears or the Super Bowl. According to a study by iCrossing, a global digital marketing company, 59% of adults go online to find health and wellness information, while 55% go to their doctors and 29% talk to a relative or friend. This makes the Internet the number one resource for healthcare information. 

Although the study indicated that more than three-quarters of consumers named caregivers as their most trusted resource, the Internet is trusted more than friends, pharmaceutical companies, and TV. Two-thirds of adults online use generic search engines to find healthcare information, while usage of healthcare-specific search engines remains comparatively low. The study also indicates that 34% of searchers looking for healthcare information use social media sites, particularly those in the 18-to-34 age group. 

Put into that context, it is easy to see why healthcare organizations with a strong online product and an integrated Internet marketing strategy will find their names at the top of search engines, build brand awareness with younger generations, and get more patient volume through the doors. 

Quality hospitals need quality sites

Resources are scarce when it comes to supporting the actual practice of medicine, so getting the most out of your Web site dollars is critical, and it’s all too easy to overspend on an inefficient site. Fortunately, there are some fantastic examples out there, one of which is www.methodisthealth.com, the Web site of Houston’s Methodist Hospital System.

The fact that a reputable system like Methodist invests heavily in building a top-notch Web site as part of a fully integrated marketing plan should speak volumes. A four-hospital system in a highly competitive market, it has various physical expansion projects going on and many areas of excellence, including its cancer center, heart and vascular center, and neurological institute. 

It has been one of Fortune’s Top 100 companies to work for, including placing eighth in 2009 behind corporate giants like Cisco and Google, for four straight years. US News & World Report ranks the system in 12 specialties, more than any other hospital in Texas. Like the system’s caregivers, Methodist’s Web service is award winning, earning first place in the 2007 WebAward competition and the 2003 Best Graphic Design award from the World Wide Web Health Awards Program.

The quality and reputation of Methodist Hospital System is clearly not in doubt. Although that fact may on the surface make Web investments seem less important, according to Amando Barajas, Methodist’s online services marketing Web manager, the need for a quality Web site only increases with the quality of care. 

“As time progresses, people see the need for Web investment. There isn’t a specific dollar figure that will make a site better,” he said. “You need a focused effort, fresh content, and an ability to convey what makes you unique.”

Connect the dots

The first step is realizing that Web services go hand in hand with marketing and publicity efforts. Developers and webmasters must work with service lines and members of the communications team to determine what the system wants to get out of its Web site and develop the content. 

Methodist has a strong communications strategy with Web as a key component of its overall marketing plan. Every campaign has online components. If Methodist is focusing on its heart center, perhaps because a TV outlet is doing a story on it, there will be supporting information online. 

“I believe in creating dedicated landing sections or Web pages for different communication vehicles,” Barajas said. “If someone is interested in stroke care and we send out an e-newsletter about it, information on the site is targeted toward that, and we don’t just direct people to the home page. We send them to a targeted part of the site that is more specific.” 

After that, it is important to determine who is using the site and why. Methodist’s site is aimed at three different user groups—patients, providers, and job seekers. With physicians, Methodist’s communications teams work closely with each service line to determine what information doctors need to access, whether it is information on serving patients or attending upcoming educational seminars. Prospective employees want easy access to open positions and need to know how the hospital is perceived as a workplace.

Healthcare consumers look for information on diseases and treatments. They want to know how one hospital compares to another. And they expect healthcare Web sites to be as user-friendly as other Web sites they are used to surfing. Keeping up with consumer demands means seeking information directly from the source. 

“We sometimes do focus groups if we want to enhance certain pieces of the site—instead of just guessing what people want,” said Barajas. “We created a quality and safety ratings section so people can see how we compare versus other hospitals, not just in our area but across the country, and we conducted focus groups on that project to find out how we could explain the information easily.” 

Going forward, Methodist will continue to learn more about how to use its site as a tool to achieve communications goals, whether that is improving opportunities for physicians to take continuing education courses online or refining areas focused on Methodist as a great place to work or receive care. Through content development and Web 2.0 tactics such as blogs, chat, and video, the system is working to provide content in multiple formats so target audiences can consume content in the best way for them.

“Our goal is to be the best, and we always look for ways to improve the site. We did a site enhancement last year and consulted focus groups to improve our overall navigation structure,” Barajas said. “Now we are focusing on keeping content fresh for our service areas, not just to communicate our message but for search engine rankings.”

Through search engine optimization tactics, Methodist ensures its site is at or near the top of search results. By quantifying results, comparing annual site visits, and looking at the number of online transactions, the system can see what is working and what isn’t, helping to improve the site and providing data on the site’s impact on the mission of providing care. Working closely with different service lines, Methodist can determine the business and communications objectives for each line and create a supporting Web component as part of its overall marketing plan.

“We emphasize focusing on what we haven’t done and how we can improve the site strategically,” said Barajas. “It is about thinking outside of traditional healthcare online offerings and coming up with ways to create a relationship with your audience. You have to make sure the information is relevant, that it makes them want to come back, and that it adequately represents the hospital online.” 

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