The Internet village is not just a vague tool of the future

Oct. 1, 2000 proudly sponsors Dental Economics` three-part series, A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR PRACTICE ONLINE proudly sponsors Dental Economics` three-part series, A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR PRACTICE ONLINE

Barry Freydberg, DDS

Keith Collins, DMD

Tom Hedge, DDS

Debra Gray King, DDS, FAACD

Daniel King, JD, CPA

Corine Leech, CDA

Tom Orent, DMD

Les Prasad, DDS

When you fully embrace the Internet, your practice can flourish. Whether it`s by drawing in new patients or connecting you to online dental communities, you and your staff can benefit from your Internet connection and help your practice grow.

Much has been said about the current limitations of the Internet in bringing new patients to your practice. While clearly not every consumer goes online, a core group certainly does use the Internet on a regular basis. They are drawn to professionals who are also technologically savvy. A few doctors are finding these patients on their Web site doorstep and are enjoying more than a small return on their Internet investment.

"I would beg to differ from many authors who are saying that it`s time to have a Web site, but don`t expect direct patients and a lot of production out of it," says Dr. Tom Orent of Framingham, Mass. "If, in fact, that`s the response they`re getting, then there`s something wrong with their site. When dentists market, it`s usually on a very limited budget and that budget should go to things that you can measure. And tracking your marketing is essential."

The early adopters of the Internet have found that Web sites can bring new patients to your site. To draw those Web-friendly patients in, you must use a combination of traditional media and the Internet.

Blanket your marketing with your URL

The basics of marketing your Web site are easy - put your Web site address (also known as the URL) and e-mail address on each and every piece of marketing material: business cards, signage, stationery, brochures, Yellow Pages ads, and all other media advertising. The awareness of your Web site will grow as current patients see your URL and pass that on to their friends and family when they make referrals to your practice.

"It`s a supplemental thing. Even if they don`t visit your site, they see it on your business card and you`re viewed as being high-tech and technologically savvy," says Dan King, a lawyer and husband of Dr. Debra King. Dan provides both legal and marketing support for Dr. King`s practice in Atlanta.

The simple act of including your Web address and e-mail on every piece of literature that leaves your practice can produce dramatic results.

"The big surprise was when we put our Internet address in the Yellow Pages ad," says Dr. Barry Freydberg of Skokie, Ill. "Traditionally our Yellow Pages ad had the lowest dollar value per new patient. Suddenly, it changed and became higher, and we had to figure out why. We found we had a new category of patients. Those who went to the Yellow Pages and then the Web site. And they had a much higher value than those who just went to the Yellow Pages ad."

Investing in dental directories

Before deciding to invest in the "Find-a-Dentist" directories, you should check out each directory as if you were a consumer looking for a dentist. Do they offer the consumer anonymity, information, choice, and control? And what is your expected return on investment? How do the charges for listing your practice in the "Find-a-Dentist" directory fit in to your marketing budget?

Compare their marketing approaches as well. How does the dental directory make its money? If it is solely through your subscription fee, your up-front cost will typically be higher when compared to other directories. This will also likely reduce the number of doctors affiliated with the directory, making it less comprehensive and less appealing to savvy consumers.

Does the "Find-a-Dentist" directory make its money through banner ads? If so, your subscription costs will likely be lower. Since the total number of doctors listed online is higher, the consumer has more choices. There may be some backlash from advertising. Some consumers will rail against health sites that they suspect are unduly influenced by corporate advertising.

If the directory makes its money through vendor alliances, you likely will see two sides to the site. On the consumer side, the "Find-a-Dentist" directory will be completely free of advertising, raising the consumer`s faith in the service. On the professional side, you`ll see the advertising, but the cost of the directory will range from low to no cost. The minimal cost means that these types of directories will be more comprehensive, since many more doctors sign on because of the no-lose situation. This type of directory offers the consumer more choices and restricts advertising to the doctors` side of the Web site.

As you review your options, align your practice with the "Find-a-Dentist" directories that will give you the broadest reach at the most reasonable cost.

Staking your claim on the portal search engines

You know you should submit your Web site to the major search engine portals. After all, that`s where everyone goes to find what they`re looking for on the Internet. But do you know the most effective way to submit your site? The problem is that even the best search engines - such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, and America Online - only handle a small percentage of all the Web sites on the Internet. And the filtering process is hit-and-miss for these popular search engines. Just type "find a dentist," and you`ll receive thousands of pages of links. How do you maximize the chance that new patients will find you via these search engines?

To effectively register your site on portal search engines, you must use the secret language of search engines - meta tags.

"Meta tags are strings of keywords, which describe different aspects of what a Web site is about," says Dan King. "These meta tags are critically important if traffic is to hit your site, because the Internet search engines categorize and find your site based on these terms."

The trick to meta tags is that each search engine looks for the information differently and has different rules for submission. To have the most impact, you should ask your Web programmer to work with you on customizing your submissions. Or, if you`re a do-it-yourselfer, King recommends that you "add software that will optimize your meta tags and customize your submission to search engines. My wife, Dr. Debra King, has a colleague from dental school who asked, `How are you getting your site to come up first in the search engines?` The answer to that is: Optimize your Web site with meta tags."

When planning your submission, don`t forget the online Yellow Pages, Digital Cities, and City Searches in your area. They are used just like the printed version of the Yellow Pages. And professional associations such the ADA, AGD, AACD, and your state and local dental societies will often include your URL in their listings. As you extend your submissions further, you can submit your site to the local media sites, relocation and real estate sites, and the chamber of commerce. The more sites you can attach your page to, the more you`ll increase the likelihood that new patients will find you online.

Internet communities

Just as you`d like new patients to use the Internet to find your practice, you and your staff can use the Internet to find resources that help you run your practice. The Internet can connect you to dental colleagues and related resources, saving you money and time.

Dr. Keith Collins of Vancouver, Wash., describes an ideal situation, "Your staff is learning about the advanced dental technology you have in your office. You shop more efficiently for dental supplies on the Internet, and traditional business activities are being re-engineered to harvest the power of the Internet."

Forums, chats, and news groups are other resources to consider. What can a forum do for your practice? Forums offer you access to hundreds of colleagues, allowing you to exchange ideas and experiences, as well as debate with doctors across the country. Forums can be moderated, private, or public.

"I`m shocked at how much I`ve become attached to the Internet," says Corine Leech, the office manager for Dr. Tom Hedge. "I never would have believed it if someone had told me that I would go home every night and log on to a forum. You become so connected. And there are lots and lots of practices that are doing it. I know that because I`m out there with them."

With this open dialogue, you`ll feel less isolated, as you exchange anecdotes and advice with your peers. "On the Generation Next forum there are about a thousand doctors - most of the heavy hitters of dentistry," says Hedge, who practices in West Chester, Ohio. "I`ve found it fascinating to share ideas. At times, the debates have become quite heated." Hedge accesses the forum several times a day.

"Since I`m a member of the Crown Council, I get about 20 e-mails a day," says Dr. Les Prasad of North Attleboro, Mass. "We exchange thoughts and ideas on various topics on a daily basis.

"The information is also transmitted to some of my patients. So they not only get the benefit of my expertise and knowledge, but they will get the information from the wealth of knowledge that I receive through e-mails from all those dentists. My patients are getting not just second or third opinions, they`re getting the benefit of consultations from outstanding clinicians in the country. There could not have been a better way to communicate."

Newsgroups are similar to dental forums. The difference is that they are open to the general public. While you still have the opportunity to communicate with colleagues, you must also keep in mind that consumers are reading everything that you post as well. In the book The Global Village of Dentistry, the authors warn that, "There is no control over who reads postings, copies them, forwards them to other newsgroups, or transmits them through personal e-mail. When discussing specific patient care issues or cases, health professionals have the responsibility to keep patient information confidential and private."

Connecting your staff

Many practices are just now learning the power of connecting their entire staff to the Internet - and to each other - with e-mail addresses and Internet access.

"Once you get everyone hooked up to it, all of a sudden it becomes a tremendous tool. Our bookkeeper can send a broadcast e-mail through the office, or we can forward e-mails from patients to our specific staff," says Orent.

If you`re afraid your staff will resist the advent of e-mail and the Internet, listen to what Leech has to say: "I`ve been in dentistry 23 years, and change comes harder for older dogs. I was resistant to it because I didn`t think I had time for it. But now that I`m used to it, it makes my life so much easier. I can`t imagine not having it."

Your staff can use the Internet for everything from ordering supplies online to placing employment ads.

"Like any technology, once you start, you realize there are all sorts of uses for it. Then you wonder how you lived without it," says Freydberg. "That`s what technology does."

Some organizations even allow you to check a patient`s insurance eligibility online, as well as file claims online. "So instead of sending a copy of an X-ray and narrative to a dental consultant, you create a digital attachment that`s linked to a claim," says Collins.

The Internet has become the tool of the future - allowing you to connect your staff to the World Wide Web, and draw in new patients at the same time. To effectively use the power of the Internet, you must make sure that you`re connected to search engines so that new patients can find you. And you`ll also want to connect your entire staff to the Internet, so that they can use its power to make their job easier and your practice more successful.

If you would like to contact Dentistry Online, Inc., to discuss the contents of this article, call (800) 683-5409, or you can e-mail the participants:

- Barry Freydberg, DDS, [email protected]

- Keith Collins, DMD, [email protected]

- Tom Hedge, DDS, [email protected]

- Debra Gray King, DDS, FAACD, and Daniel King, JD, CPA, [email protected]

- Corine Leech, CDA, [email protected]

- Tom Orent, DMD, [email protected]

- Les Prasad, DDS, [email protected]

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