I want to start with a disclaimer: I don’t have a website for my private practice, and I have no formal education in marketing. My opinions on what should and should not be on physician practice websites are my own, and as you take my thoughts into account, remember that others have different opinions about what belongs on a website.
Periodically, I look at websites my colleagues have set up, and I have noted some interesting differences in how detailed they are, the photos that are chosen, the information that is listed, the editing, and how the doctor presents himself or herself. It seems like a wonderful way to both “advertise” and to have people know about the doctor in advance. Practice websites can save time for everyone: A patient can weed out psychiatrists who don’t treat the condition he or she has, and the doctor can refer to the website rather than having long phone conversations with someone who would not want to see them for any number of reasons. In theory, websites can include ways for patients to schedule their own appointments, but I have not yet seen this software on any psychiatry sites.
Psychiatrist websites often start with some biographical and training issues on either the home or Welcome page or in a specific About section. They may give helpful information, such as directions to the office, parking instructions, and what conditions the doctor treats. It’s important to have a clear link to the site’s menu, and I’m not sure that older users always know that the “hamburger” icon of three horizontal lines is a menu link. It’s nice if there is a picture of the doctor, and I’ve even seen a few sites where there is a photo of the doctor’s office; it seems like a nice touch and may allay some anxiety for new patients if the doctor and his or her space feel familiar and nonthreatening. As with everything on the website, the artwork and graphics reflect something about the doctor. Many psychotherapists will use nature photos; others feature stethoscopes and lab coats for a more medical feel. Some psychiatrists opt for more opaque graphics – geometric shapes, for example.
Psychiatrists differ as to the tone of the websites, with a range from chatty to purely informative. Some are done in the third person, as though written by an agent for the doctor, while others, like Dr. Soulen’s, are written in the first person with a conversational feel. Several psychiatrists I know in solo practice use the first-person plural voice of “we/our” to discuss their practice. It is probably best to choose a single option and stick to it; it can sound awkward if a solo practitioner mixes both “I” and “we,” and a prospective patient may not be sure if he is to meet with one person or a team.
A website can be a painless way to let prospective patients know about insurance participation, fees, and payment policies before the first meeting. Some psychiatrists list their fees and others choose not to. Many doctors list their cancellation policies, and this also seems reasonable. I, personally, find it off-putting when a psychiatrist gets too detailed about money, and there may be better venues for telling patients very specific practice policies such as the price per page for copying records or the consequences of arriving late to a session. In my practice, I don’t charge patients to call or send in prescriptions between sessions, but it does take up physician time, so I have mixed feelings when I see a website that lists a price for this service. I might also worry that patients would stop their medications and risk relapse if they had to worry about paying a fee to have a medication renewal sent in to the pharmacy.
It’s important to remember that patients want a psychiatrist who cares about them, and too much website emphasis on fee collection or office rules may give prospective patients the impression that financial issues take precedence. While many psychiatrists list detailed office policies with grace, I have occasionally seen sites filled with rules such that they almost read, “Here is what I won’t do for you.” Practice ground rules and policies are helpful and set useful boundaries, but a website might not be the best place to announce every policy with every contingency, and doing so may create the impression – accurate or not – that the psychiatrist is rigid and uncaring. And they may hedge the doctor in such that it’s harder to be flexible when a situation warrants doing something other than what is publicly proclaimed.
Many psychiatrists also use their practice websites as a place to offer something more: a blog where they post information on psychiatric conditions, a video of a talk they have given, recommendations for helpful books or articles, and links to other resources. It can be an efficient way of communicating with patients, prospective patients, family members, or referral sources.
Finally, in our age of information overload and Yelp doctor reviews, a practice website allows the physician some control over what a person might learn on a Google search. It doesn’t make negative information go away, but it gives the physician a place to have a say and put up information he or she wants others to see.
Websites come in a variety of formats: Some doctors have them professionally designed; others use free templates. Whatever option one chooses, it’s important to think about how the site will be perceived and to check carefully for spelling and grammar mistakes. Abbreviations should also be avoided; while many patients know what ECT or SSRIs are, it’s best to assume that site visitors may not be familiar with psychiatric lingo.
“A website is a modern-day storefront. I feel it is important to have something that is professional,” Dr. Andrews said.