Paving the Way: As more people depend on Web sites for medical information, it is important for physicians to pave a clear path for users on the information highway.

 Not many family physicians and even fewer dentists know very much about the signs and symptoms of OSA and other sleep-related medical conditions. So people with sleep disorders and their long-suffering bed partners are left to find information on their own. Where do they turn?

According to a report released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project: Online life report on May 30, 2004 (, 52 million American adults, or 55% of those with Internet access, have used the Web to get health or medical information. We call them “health seekers,” and a majority of them go online at least once a month for health information. A great many health seekers say the resources they find on the Web have a direct effect on the decisions they make about their health care and on their interactions with doctors.

  • 48% of these health seekers say the advice they found on the Web has improved the way they take care of themselves; and 55% say access to the Internet has improved the way they get medical and health information.
  • 92% of health seekers say the information they found during their last online search was useful; 81% said they learned something new.
  • 47% of those who sought health information did so for themselves during their last online search.
  • The material affected their decisions about treatments and care.
  • Half of these health seekers say the information influenced the way they eat and exercise.
  • 36% of those who sought health information did so for someone else during their last online search.
  • The material affected their decisions on behalf of that loved one.

Increasing numbers of people with sleep problems are turning to the Web for information on their sleep disorder and finding the Web sites of physicians, dentists, and sleep centers that provide that information. These doctors/centers then become the patients’ expert source of information on their particular problem, and possibly these Web searchers become patients of those practices.

In a field as new and misunderstood as sleep medicine, it is every practitioner’s responsibility to educate the public, and the best way to do that professionally is with a practice Web site that provides current, up-to-date information on sleep disorders and their treatment. Remember, the majority of the public do not have a clue about what physicians and dentists can do for those suffering from sleep disorders and will not learn unless you and your sleep colleagues tell them. Furthermore, providing accurate information not only benefits sleep practices, but the combined educational information on Web sites from multiple practices and sleep centers benefits the field of sleep medicine as a whole.

The Four Principles
There are four principles of medical/dental practice Web sites that became evident while doing research for my book Make It Easy For Me. These include:

1. Today’s medical and dental specialty practices need a Web site to be successful—even very successful practices with excellent new patient flow and patient-of-record retention could enhance the productivity of their practices with a properly designed and marketed practice Web site. More patients of all ages are seeking information on the Internet and are responding to Web sites that provide the information they need.

2. There is no correlation between site design and the site’s success. Professional Web sites need to look professional as well as well written and illustrated. I have examined sites that open with splash pages, sites designed in Flash, sites with glitzy graphics, sites that are text-based with some illustrative pictures and diagrams, and even those that appear to be somewhat poorly designed. Comparing these with doctors’ comments as to how well the site is working for the practice proves that sites do not succeed or fail based on design.

3. Content is indeed king. The most important factor relating to the success of the site is the amount of useable content that a site provides for a visiting patient or potential patient. Content refers to both the text portion of the site and the images shown. But there is a caveat. In order for content to be successful, it must be written by the doctors in their own words and must show their commitment to the practice and patients. Images should be of actual practice patients and not stock photographs. Content that site visitors are looking for seems more important than the ease of finding that content within the site. In other words, even if content is hidden in a badly designed navigation system, that content can be sought out by patients and they can visit the offices of doctors who provide that content. Content that is written by the doctor and can be easily found will make the site even more successful.

4. Sites must be found to be successful. As obvious as this seems, if a patient or potential patient cannot find a particular Web site, it may not be successful for the practice. It is important that the site can be easily found in search engines and everything should be done as far as search engine optimization and submission are concerned to rank the site high in a search return. But one cannot depend on this because algorithms are constantly being rewritten. Because of this, the practice with a Web site should do everything possible to make sure the name of the site is recognized throughout the area of the practice. It is true that a practice has to find its niche in order to prosper, according to marketing expert William “Howie” Horrocks:

“One of the cardinal marketing sins is trying to be everything to everyone…. And if you are marketing yourself as a family dentist who welcomes children and also does cosmetic surgery and restorations and implants… dentures and root canals, it becomes very difficult for your marketing message to stand out in a competitive environment… As competition increases, you’ll find more specialization, and the consumer looks for the sort of practice that specializes in the sort of dentistry he/she needs.”

Creating a Marketing Tool
In addition to being an exciting, important part of the new dentistry and providing a valuable patient service, a dental sleep practice can establish a marketing niche for your practice and set you apart in your community. In that respect, a Web site dedicated to this portion of a practice can become a very effective distinguishing marketing tool to generate a flow of new patients. Many of these new patients can come from other practices (where most new patients come from), giving you the opportunity to present other aspects of your practice (for example, dental appliances should not be placed on periodontally involved teeth or teeth with broken restorations). Practicing sleep medicine in your dental practice can also open a new source of patient referrals (sleep physicians), and these patients will, no doubt, need dental treatment as well.

Finally, for both medical and dental practices, it is beneficial to make it easy for patients to find what they came to your site to find. Get out of their way and let them do what they came to do by making the navigation simple and intuitive and the content clearly written and understandable to the public.

During his 38 years of clinical practice in restorative and reconstructive dentistry, Laurence I. Barsh, DMD, was assistant clinical professor at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and is the author of Dental Treatment Planning for the Adult Patient and Dental Web Sites That Work. He has authored numerous scientific papers and lectures nationally and internationally. He is currently president and owner of AdLIB DESIGN, a Web site development and digital photography company in New York City,; [email protected].