Dont let your Web site be a disappointment

They`re out there. They`re in their pajamas and bathrobes, and they`re looking for a dentist. Will your Web site turn Web surfers into new customers?

They`re out there. They`re in their pajamas and bathrobes, and they`re looking for a dentist. Will your Web site turn Web surfers into new customers?

Ralph Laurie, DentistryOnline, Inc.

If you are planning to launch a Web site to draw new patients to your practice, don`t. I guarantee that you will be disappointed with the short-term results. A Web site may capture the essence of your practice, but how does the new patient find you? The Internet is vast, and even the best dental practice Web sites have difficulty attracting prospective patients.

This doesn`t mean you shouldn`t put your practice on the Web. A Web presence is vital for a growing dental practice, but you must re-evaluate your goal before you build your Internet presence. Don`t join the Internet in search of new patients; join the Internet because putting your practice online is the right thing to do.

Patients expect to find you online

A Cyber Dialogue survey found that 50 percent of all online users would be interested in using a Web site operated by their doctor`s office. Today`s patients are much more Internet-savvy than they were five years ago. Last April, CommerceNet reported 92 million users accessing the Internet in North America. Computer Industry Almanac predicts that number will increase to more than 143 million by the end of 2000. More and more often, these Internet users are coming online to research health topics. In fact, a Cyber Dialogue study found that "Health and Medicine" was a favored content area for nearly half of all women online.

The availability of reliable health information on the Internet is a growing priority for patients, and they are expecting to have dental health information at their fingertips. Andy Grove, chairman of the board at Intel, stated at a recent Internet Health Day conference that "60 percent of doctors report that their patients come in with sheaves of information that were printed [off] the Internet." Think of the value of having your patients conduct online research of their dental health topics on your site. Those doctors who step up now, position their practice online, and offer dental education information to their patients via their Web site will be the leaders in the next decade.

The outcome of this new cyber-health community is a better patient bond. Using your Web site to educate patients on dental health topics strengthens your relationship with patients, giving them the tools to actively participate in their dental health care. These educated patients are likely to present your most rewarding cases. When your patients know what you know, they`ll want the work you recommend - which leads to higher case acceptance and a subsequent increase in revenue.

Content is king

Those Web sites that consist of one page, listing the dental practice`s address, phone number, and office hours are simply glorified Yellow Pages ads - they have no value to your existing patient base. We already discussed the power of patient education. It will bring existing patients back to your site to research treatment concerns or cosmetic options. Comprehensive educational content also will show potential patients that you value their freedom of choice, as well as their ability to make informed dental care decisions.

To fully exploit the power of the Internet, your Web site should be rich in content and applicable to two audiences: existing patients and potential patients.

Discuss your practice philosophy. Profile your staff. Market your specialties. Enable patients to schedule an appointment online or via e-mail. These features will be of interest to both audiences. For existing patients, include easy access, postoperative instructions as a part of a larger patient-education section on your site. For potential patients, include financial arrangement information, maps, and directions.

The depth of your content is directly related to your ability to use your site to market your practice. If you pamper your patients or have a family-friendly practice, those consumers who are researching their dental options online will want to spend time visiting your site, learning about your philosophy, and "meeting" you and your staff - all before they call for that first appointment. This leads to a better match when it comes to new patients and less patient turnover.

The power of e-mail

The Cyber Dialogue survey found that 48 percent of online users seeking health information would like to communicate with their doctor`s office via e-mail, and that 33 percent would be likely to switch doctors in order to do so.

E-mail creates a more efficient communication system for you and your staff. And for those patients who are anxious about going to the dentist or too busy to call during the day, e-mail provides a convenient and comfortable alternative, giving the patient a feeling of control. E-mail communication also makes your job easier. You can delegate the opening and sorting of e-mail to qualified staff members, and you can address these e-mail messages during downtime, which is a better use of your resources. Patients will be more likely to ask questions if they can use e-mail. It`s nonthreatening, it`s easy, and patients can print out your response, instead of trying to absorb the information over the phone.

An effective e-mail program gives your office a high-tech image. You can communicate to your patients electronically, saving time and reducing mailing and printing costs. Think of the possibilities that e-mail opens up: appointment reminders, welcome letters, birthday greetings, recall notices, patient newsletters, post-op check in, and patient-education presentations. All of these can be e-mailed to patients quickly, easily, and at a low cost.

The beauty of e-mail is that it is still in the romance stage. People like to send and receive e-mail. There`s an excitement when you hear the chime and the voice announcing, "You`ve got mail." E-mail is a welcomed, personal method of communication that strengthens the doctor-patient relationship.

Begin gathering your patients` e-mail addresses during the check-in process. It may take several months, but you will soon have a comprehensive e-mail list with which you can begin to communicate with patients, quickly and cost-effectively.

What good is a Web site if no one can find you?

You`ve launched your Web site, you`ve constructed the content, and you`re confident that it reflects the mission of your practice. Now what? The same Cyber Dialogue study that found that half of all online users would be interested in using their doctor`s Web site also revealed that only 9 percent were aware of the existence of a Web site operated by their doctor`s office.

So how do you draw your patients to your site and start reaping those benefits of educated patients and easier communication? The answer is that your Web site must be integrated into your overall marketing plan. Business cards, stationery, invoices, Yellow Pages advertisements, and brochures must have your Web site URL and e-mail address prominently displayed. Existing patients who have easy access to your addresses can visit your site at their convenience, in the evenings and on the weekends.

As consumers scour the Yellow Pages looking for a dentist, whom are they going to call first? If they are interested in making an informed decision, they`re likely to check out the Web pages of those savvy practices that include their URLs in a display ad. Once people are on your site, they can have a virtual tour of your office, meet your staff, and meet you, all without leaving the comfort zone of their own homes. It`s a win-win situation. You get new patients who know more about your practice before they even walk through your door.

Pulling in new patients

I began by warning you that you shouldn`t expect your Web site to bring in new patients. For the time being, that is basically true. But the reality is that the growth of the Internet and the existence of dental search engines are changing the way patients choose their dentists.

How do you know which search engines to align yourself with? I fall back to "Content is king." Just as your existing patients will go to your site because of the quality of the content, consumers visit and revisit a site because of the depth of information it provides. Affiliate yourself with only those dental sites that have compelling reasons for consumers to come back again and again.

Before signing up with a search engine, I recommend that you first look at the site through a patient`s eyes. What resources and features would bring you back to that site if you were a consumer looking for dental health information? Test out the search engine yourself by looking for a dentist in your area. How many steps did it take you to get the listing of dentists? Did you have to provide any personal information before you could proceed with your search? If it was uncomfortable for you to answer those questions, it will be uncomfortable for your future patient base. Internet consumers expect to have information at their fingertips and balk at the prospect of having to answer even the most common personal questions.

Now review your search results. How many practices did your search bring up? Was it a complete representation of the dental practices in your area? Although it may appear to be valuable to have only a few competitors listed, it will actually backfire in the long run. Consumers are sharp, and if their search brings up only a handful of results, they will likely turn to another, more comprehensive search engine. Once you`ve found a Web site that passes both the content and search-engine tests, you can better evaluate the effectiveness of your investment in a search-engine registration.

Finally, when looking at drawing in new patients, I think it`s valuable to reiterate that one of the most important steps is to ensure that your URL is included on newspaper and Yellow Pages ads, referral cards, business stationery, and every other piece of communication that goes out the door. Getting your Web address in the public eye will slowly and surely bring in new patients.

Invest in the future of the Internet

In May, Cisco Systems, Inc., citing The Internet Indicators, found that seven new people are on the Internet every second. As more and more consumers get on the Internet, and more and more companies offer their services to those consumers, expectations grow that your practice should be online.

An Internet presence will:

> reduce the cost of communicating with your patients

> increase the comfort level of your patients by giving them more choices and more information

> allow you to grow your practice, which means you`ll get more patients saying "yes" for the dental procedures they will now want, rather than need.

The Internet`s current ability to drive new patients to your site is limited, but it is growing. With a strong site, a strong position, and a richness of content, you`ll reap the benefits down the road, a road that is getting shorter every day.

A dental practice Web site should simply be another medium you use to communicate with your existing patients, and perhaps gain some new patients in the process. Look at your Web site as an investment in the future. It`s the right thing to do for your patients and your practice.

DE

For more information about this article, contact the author at (800) 736-9998.

INTERNET FAST FACTS*

* Estimates are that the Internet today offers at least 15,000 different health-care sites.

* Roughly 24.8 million adults in the United States use the Internet to retrieve health and medical information. That number is expected to grow to 30 million by the end of 2000.

* 34 percent of all households in the United States have Internet access. That number is expected to rise to 61 percent within five years.

* 44 percent of adults online use the Web daily.

* 37 percent of Internet users have made at least one purchase online during the last 12 months.

* "Entertainment" is now the most popular content category on the Internet.

* From Cyber Dialogue

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