Physicians and hospitals must make websites more patient-friendly, study says

Accessibility is the key to a good consumer experience, especially for health care organizations.

By — Posted March 5, 2012

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If physicians are planning to launch a new website or revamp an old one, a study says they're better off not looking at other medical sites for inspiration -- especially on how to write or present their content.

A study in the January/February issue of the Journal of Healthcare Management looked at what makes an effective website and measured how some of the nation's hospitals and health systems are doing.

Consumers compare health system websites with other consumer sites such as Amazon and eBay, according to the report. That comparison can influence perceptions of the health organizations.

The study examined elements that contribute to a good website user experience, including accessibility, content, marketing and technology. Researchers analyzed 636 websites listed in the American Hospital Assn. directory. They used a webcrawler to assess the websites' ability to be found on a search engine. The researchers used weighted, multi-item scales to assess each element based on current benchmarks. Websites were graded on each element, then an overall score was calculated.

The accessibility scale assessed ease of use; the content scale assessed overall quality of the content; the marketing scale assessed how readily information is found using search engines; and the technology scale looked at how well each site was designed.

Of all the elements that make a good consumer experience, accessibility is especially relevant to health care organizations, said Eric Ford, PhD, a study author and professor of business at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. The study said accessibility is often lacking on health organization websites.

Health care organization websites need to reach as many people as possible, the study said. This means the content should be accessible to those with low computer literacy levels as well as those who have physical disabilities that limit their ability to use a mouse or who use nonstandard browsers.

"Given the service domain in health care, the issue of accessibility is all the more important," the study's authors wrote.

Ford said the general rule for most consumer sites is to write at an 11th-grade reading level. The study's analysis found that many hospital sites write to a graduate degree level, he said.

He said many health care organization sites use jargon-heavy language that the average person has a hard time understanding. For example, some websites have data related to ventilator-acquired pneumonia, but they used only the acronym. Or they used "nosocomial infections" instead of the more understandable term "hospital-acquired infections."

"While it makes sense to those of us who work in the field day in and day out, to the average person just trying to figure out what's going on, it requires a fair amount of health care-specific knowledge and probably not where we need to be on the front page of most hospital websites," Ford said.

The report notes that as more organizations serve as accountable care organizations, the accessibility of their websites will be even more important.

"If organizations are to serve as ACOs, then it stands to reason that consumers are going to use their websites as a portal to their personal health record as a means to coordinate care and as a tool for assessing provider quality," the report said.

In general, Ford said, hospitals and health systems have "good, not great websites." But they are gradually improving and have shown gains from a similar analysis a year ago, he said. Two areas he suspects will present challenges during the next few years are social media and quality reporting on the websites.

The importance of social media is growing, the report said.

"The absence of a Twitter account usually indicates that a website has no following in the social media domain," the authors wrote. Ford said several organizations had Twitter feeds or Facebook pages, but they were very limited and not drawing much Web traffic.

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