Dental Web Sites That Work

Dec. 1, 1998
Imagine that you had a dental assistant who worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ... and never asked for a raise! Imagine that the assistant marketed your practice to a local and worldwide market and could answer all of your patients` questions. Imagine that this assistant could distribute information on new, state-of-the-art services as soon as they became available, could gather data that would help market your practice in the future, and had personal contact with over 50 million potential p

Laurence I. Barsh, DMD

Imagine that you had a dental assistant who worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ... and never asked for a raise! Imagine that the assistant marketed your practice to a local and worldwide market and could answer all of your patients` questions. Imagine that this assistant could distribute information on new, state-of-the-art services as soon as they became available, could gather data that would help market your practice in the future, and had personal contact with over 50 million potential patients. Welcome to the World Wide Web!

Any 12-year-old with a computer can put a page on the Web and that`s the problem! Surf the Net and look at some of the dental-practice sites. They usually include the dentist`s name, office address and phone number, hours of operation, insurance plans accepted, maybe a picture of the dentist and staff, perhaps a map, and a list of all the great things the dentist can accomplish, complete with illustrations; in other words, a practice brochure on-line! (That 12-year-old sure has been busy!) All of these things are necessary in a dental Web site, but experience has proven that Web sites limited to simply providing practice information accomplish nothing more than satisfying the ego of the practitioner.

The introduction of telephone, radio, television, and the personal computer into our lives has created major societal changes during this century. In each case, businesses have responded and adapted to each technological advance. The change has influenced the way dentistry is practiced as well. Just think about what your practice would be like if you did not have a telephone or computer in the office and if major dental/medical advances were not announced to the public on radio and television.

Futurists predict that the Internet will alter even more profoundly the way both society and business function in the coming century. The Web is well on its way to becoming the dominant medium in our society. One reason for this is its unprecedented rate of adoption by an estimated 50 million users merely three years after its commercialization.

Recent surveys from the Institute for the Future, Princeton Research Associates, and Louis Harris & Associates were reported in the New York Times on July 9. The survey showed that two-thirds of the people who go on-line have sought health information on the Web, and that 67 percent of doctors interviewed said they had patients who came in with information they found on the Internet.

One significant factor separating successful from nonsuccessful practices in the next century will be how proactive a practice is in capitalizing on the strengths of the Net to increase patient value. For a dental Web site to be truly successful, the site developer must understand how this new paradigm of practice operates.

The concept of this new paradigm, as applied to dentistry, simply stated is: Dentistry can no longer afford to exist in the Industrial Age! Think about it. Dental-practice consultants have, for years, advocated increased office efficiency, patterned on assembly-line concepts - i.e., double-booking, identical equipment and supplies in each room, and four-handed dentistry. Dental marketing has followed suit by advertising practice services in the Yellow Pages, newspapers, or magazines; asking existing patients for referrals, developing practice brochures outlining your services, and sending practice newsletters. But this way of doing business is dying a well-deserved death. Your patients and potential patients have more power than ever before.

So it`s no surprise that the rules of the game are changing and, with it, the way we communicate with patients. Successful Web sites should be built on six driving principles of this new paradigm:

Establishing a presence on the Net takes time. "I never think of the future; it comes soon enough," Albert Einstein said. Health-care professionals would do well to pay attention to the second part of this statement. Walid Mougayer, president and CEO of Cybermanagement, Inc. and author of Opening Digital Markets, feels that most companies aren`t doing enough to prepare for the next century. "Buy land while land is cheap." Health-care professionals need to evaluate what type of digital value they can provide and then become "infomediators" for their patients. If the Web indeed has the value many feel it does, establishing a Web site that becomes a destination for everything a patient needs to know about dentistry should be a priority. Practices that fail to join the on-line community could be left behind, missing out on the preferred way potential patients will gather information in the future.

In Star Trek IV, Scotty picks up a 20th-century Macintosh mouse, thinking it`s a microphone, and says, "Hello, computer." He recognizes his mistake and deals with the then archaic graphical-user interface (GUI) of our present-day computers, the keyboard. A shift is underway from the GUI interface to the Web-user interface (WUI). WUIs can provide conversational interaction and are content- and task-oriented. Web-user interfaces can be proactive and in three dimensions. The fact that Microsoft is embedding its browser interface into Windows 98 and NT 5 is just the beginning. This interface - or the ability of the individual to interact easily with computers - foretells a future where information will be paramount to business success. It`s not just Microsoft; many other software manufacturers now are developing software designed to the browser paradigm as well.

David Cearley, Meta Group senior vice president, notes, "While Star Trek`s holodecks are not yet on the horizon, the move to network-computing platforms and Web-oriented user interfaces (WUIs) is bringing us closer to a computing approach once seen as science fiction. This paradigm shift ushers in 21st-century computing and expands computing to virtually all aspects of business and computer products. This new paradigm was enabled by the combined effect of Moore?s Law (which posits that the number of transistors on a processor chip doubles every 18 months) and expanding bandwidth. It was propelled forward by the Internet as an easy means of accessing data.O

We rapidly are approaching a future where information orientation replaces tool orientation ? a move away from the Industrial-Age concepts with which we are all accustomed. Increasing bandwidth and speed of computing are beginning to allow for transmission of radiographs and MRI scans over the Net. IBM now promotes the storage of medical records in a secured central site. Distance learning on the Net will allow practitioners to learn from educators half a world away, fulfill continuing-education requirements, interact with the instructors, and attend meetings in real time ? all without leaving the computer in their study.

Advances in technology have fostered the development of a new field called Otelemedicine,O in which diagnosis (and consultation with specialists) of a patient?s problem is possible without ever being in physical contact with that patient.

Just how this affects dental and medical practices remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however. Practitioners need to track technology?s evolving capabilities, anticipate what?s ahead, and prepare themselves. Change always involves risk, but doing nothing carries its own set of risks best avoided by the prudent practitioner. It?s a new game in which we must all evolve or perish.

1) Every dental service you provide is available elsewhere. As much as most dentists hate to admit it, none of the dental services provided by any individual practitioner are unique. This means that one major concept of Industrial-Age marketing is no longer valid - that is, to find some unique service in your practice and place it prominently in print advertising. From the patient`s standpoint, in a health-care environment driven by HMOs, individual attention becomes a valued service. Every dentist draws on the same database of training and experience, but the ability to apply that knowledge to a specific patient`s individual needs creates value and makes the practice proprietary. A properly constructed Web site will provide the patient with the ability to tailor information to his/her specific needs.

2) Electronic renderings of print media generally fail. On-line marketing creates a wealth of new ways to exploit patient attention that are not available offline. With the availability of color, interactivity, animation and sound, on-line versions of printed materials will not hold the interest of most Internet-savvy consumers. Research has shown that you have only seconds to capture the interest of a visitor to your World Wide Web site. Your photograph, believe it or not, will not succeed in getting that visitor to explore what you have to offer on-line. With space on the Internet virtually limitless and with all the technological advances that currently are available to Web-site designers, there are no excuses for setting up a boring Web site.

3) Instant interactivity is critical. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you cannot be available to your patients all the time. But your Web site can if it`s properly structured. When a patient or potential patient wants information, that need must be filled immediately or that person will search elsewhere. If the Internet is about empowering the consumer, then data is the key to meeting these needs. For example, if a patient needs specific information about home care of dental implants, rather than care of natural dentition, a Web site can be constructed to provide this specific information rather than generic information about home care in general. Premedication information can be provided upon request to those who need it. Immediately accessible information can be viewed by someone whose child has lost an anterior tooth in a sports accident when that individual`s own dental office could not be reached. Being the source of customized dental information can be a powerful marketing tool, as well as serving the needs of the Internet community.

4) People are interested in what affects them. Technologically-aware patients do not merely want customized information access. They want some indication that a practice acknowedges their individuality in all its dealings with them. These preferences can range from whether a patient prefers morning or afternoon appointments to whether a patient prefers to be addressed by their first name or their last name. Data-driven Web sites provide an excellent opportunity for patients to obtain this information and more at their convenience on-line. People would rather talk about themselves than listen to what you have to say about yourself. Web sites that regale the viewer with the attributes of a particular practice are bound to fail, whereas sites that have the ability to provide patients with the opportunity to talk about themselves to their heart`s content retain visitor interest and loyalty. Patients assume power when they can express their feelings about your practice directly to you without the embarrassment of face-to-face contact. Patients can discuss their dental problems with other patients or even total strangers in chat rooms, on forums, and in e-mail lists housed at your site. This creates a community base solidly in your practice`s foundation.

5) People have power. It no longer is necessary for your patients to walk down the street to consult another dentist about a suggested service or fees. On the Web, your competitor is just a mouse click away. The Internet`s future is about empowering the consumer. In the future, there will be no reason why someone will not be able to smile into the camera on top of the TV-computer, capture the image, and design his/her own smile. With this image in hand, this potential patient can then visit various Web sites and get an idea of whether that smile is achievable - and even get a cost and time estimate - all on-line without leaving the comfort of his/her living room.

6) Competition always will exist. Your competition will exploit the advantages of the Web whether you do or do not. Having a presence on the Web is essential for the dental practice of the future. Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, a computer industry newsletter, sees a rich source of "perfect information" for consumers on the Web - other people! "People are the Internet`s killer applications," he says. "Humans will be better able to connect with, to trust, and to do business with each other." The Internet can supercharge your practice with the most powerful marketing tool known - recommendations from people satisfied with your services. In the coming century, your patients will become a full-time, global-focus group, since anyone can disseminate as much information as Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch.

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