Website Design, Content and Legal Considerations in the Medical Practice

by Rebecca Umberger

Look who’s searching…

In today’s medicine, the web and social media are important and beneficial tools that should not be ignored.    According to an article from amednews Feb. 21, 2011, “New vital sign:  degree of patient’s online access” by Pamela Lewis Dolan, searching for health information is the third most common online activity behind checking e-mail and using a search engine, with women more likely than men doing healthcare research.   

A Harris survey conducted in January 2011 on behalf of Insider Pages, an online directory that has a “physician finder”; found that most people look for physicians based solely on their location.  Patients starting with a physician finder normally do a query on physicians in a particular geographic area, and once that is generated, the patients will click on the profiles of the physicians they are interested in.   This is then normally followed by the searching the profile page and then the physician’s personal web page if they wanted more information.  The survey also noted that even though not all adults go online, the percentage of online health information seekers is at 59% of the totalU.S.population.

Designed for Success…

In considering web design/medical website development, you should carefully consider what type of audience you want to attract.  You may want to attract a certain type of patient, specific to your specialty, which will dictate how your design and website should be promoted.  A plastic surgeon would certainly want to promote beautiful photos of before and after surgical procedure pictures, whereas a pediatrician may want to promote an “ask-a-nurse” component or brightly colored home page.  Another consideration is the actual design.   If you aren’t sure what type of design you would like to promote the practice, do some research and find other practices online in your same specialty. 

“Googling” the simple phrase “Family Practice” for instance, will provide hundreds of practices with an online presence.  Review them, making helpful notes to assist you in design.   What was the first thing that caught your eye on their site?  Did it seem professional?  Were there any “special” effects such as flash animation, special links or other features you would like to incorporate in your website?   Did the website allow patient interaction with the providers?  How were the physicians highlighted in the website?   Is it easy for the patients to navigate?  Did they have a pleasing home page, highlighting the practice with easy to read information?    Keeping a list of website links that contained special designs, features or undesirable attributes will help down the road when designing your home page or speaking to the web designers if you decide to use a professional service. 

In respect to website content, this is obviously going to be specific to your practice and specialty.  Some items to keep in mind globally would be using your practice name, address, phone number and any other means of contacting the office on each page.  If you can, include a map for patients to find your location and a link to such as “Mapquest” or “Googlemaps” that will allow the patient to print out directions to your practice. 

Keeping the content fresh and updated is also a good idea for visitors to return.  Information about sunburns isn’t really relative in theMidwestduring a February snowstorm.  If you are using a professional web design company, they will question you for interest in SEO or “search engine optimization” which is normally an additional fee to site design.  By using the design company, they will “promote” your website by SEO optimization, which is done by paying special attention to descriptions and keywords making sure that your scores rate higher in ranking in search results.

There are many free analysis tools to track your site’s SEO performance, such as Yahoo! Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics, SEO Book and SEO Chat that will give you a wide range of options to follow your SEO campaigns.  

Legally Speaking…

Using a website for your practice is treated as advertising under the law, so any legal and ethical rules of advertising for physicians should be applied.  One should also take into consideration any patient-physician-practice contact and the legal ramifications under HIPAA (Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act) and ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) standards. 

The AMA has guidelines available to help you develop your web presence and social media rules for the practice as well.   Your malpractice carrier should be aware that you are developing a practice website for risk management purposes.   Some malpractice carriers will have specific suggestions/guidelines for their clients to use with legal resources and documents.  A good resource for HIPAA, ARRA and social networking/media updates can be found at the AMAPracticeManagementCenterat www.ama-assn.org/go/pmc.  

In considering truth-of-advertising, if you list or mention your staff on websites, make sure that the written content matches their titles and credentials.  For example, if your office only employs medical assistants in the practice, you wouldn’t want to have a statement or content stating that “our nurses” or “the nurses” provide XYZ services to the patients.  This would be misleading to patients on the website and possibly make them believe they are speaking to a “nurse” in your practice when they are really speaking to a medical assistant.  Patients deserve to know who is providing their care.  The AMA also clarifies in H-405.968 code ethics “Clarification of the Term “Provider” in Advertising, Contracts and Other Communications”.

As mentioned previously, a website in a physicians’ practice is considered advertising under the law, so you would treat it no differently than an advertisement in the newspaper or telephone book, with the exception that the physician must also be aware of truth-in-advertising and testimonials. 

Many attorneys will advise clients to stay away from testimonials and deal with straight facts and information about the office.  Your site may describe to patients why they should choose your practice, as long as they aren’t legally false, deceptive or misleading, as judged by the state medical board.  The AMA has a code of ethics that states “Generalized statements of satisfaction with a physician’s services may be made if they are representative of the experience of that physician’s patients”.

Additionally, while social networking (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.) continues to be an undeniable presence with 35% of American adults using them in the online community, they are viewed in the medical community as a “minefield” of legal and professional hazards for the medical professionals who “friend” patients to communicate. 

 

In Summary…

Healthcare providers and physicians see the potential in online interactions with patients for improving access and quality of care.   Healthcare searches compose the third highest volume of online activity.  Patients search initially for physicians demographically then by profiles if interested in further information. 

Website design is specific to your audience and specialty.  A professional appearance with easy to navigate pages and current relevant site content will keep the patients returning to your site.  Women are more likely to be viewing and researching your online presence.  Website SEO optimization increases the likelihood of your site to be “noticed” online and moved higher on the search engines with key words and descriptions based on your site content. 

There are valid concerns to consider in regards to patient privacy, liability, risk management and the compromised situations the practice can be exposed to.   Social networking sites carry an additional legal & ethical concern for the employer-physician and should not be ignored when considering online communication with patients. 

Healthcare and the internet “society” will certainly increase and is destined to be a continuum.  The healthcare community can continue to use these tools to improve the quality of health care and patient outcomes, as well as practice enhancement and patient satisfaction, but should seriously consider how best to use electronic media to everyone’s advantage, by protecting the patients’ rights as well as using best practice techniques and effective risk management.  

© 2012 Efficiency in Practice

Rebecca Umberger, CMA(AAMA), CPM  is currently Vice President of Development at Family Care Centers of Ohio, and over the past 9 years served as part-time Adjunct Instructor in the Health Division/Medical Assisting Department at Stark State College North Canton, Ohio.   She has worked various positions both as a CMA and Practice Manager in an outpatient setting for over 26 years.  During this time, she has focused in clinic operations management, practice design, planning and development, marketing, recruiting, process improvement and workflow efficiency, supervisory training and leadership development with a special interest in medical law/ethics.  She can be contacted at Rsumberger@famcareohio.com or you can check out her company’s website at www.famcareohio.com



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