American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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Does it pay for you to have a page on the Web?

Online physician directories are hot, but some wonder if the public is really using them

From the January 1997ACP Observer, copyright © 1997 by the American College of Physicians.

By Holly Epstein Ojalvo

While surfing the Internet a few months ago from his home in Topeka, Kan., Henry Spangler, FACP, discovered a service called DoctorNet that offers free home pages to physicians. The geriatrician and internist posted information about himself and his practice on the online service, but he added, "I'm sure nobody's seen it yet."

Despite the proliferation of online physician directories-Internet services that provide consumers with information about providers-as well as endless opportunities to self-publish on the Web, most physicians view their participation much like Dr. Spangler: with amusement but scant faith in whether their sites are actually being viewed.

For some physicians, venturing into the world of online directories is little more than testing the waters. Last spring, Clayton Reynolds, FACP, an endocrinologist in Lancaster, Calif., received promotional materials from the Web service MedSeek. Intrigued, the self-described computer buff struck up a conversation with the service's officials about how to get more doctors to use the service. As a result, the company furnished him a Web site complete with a detailed information on his practice for free. (Physicians usually pay $299 to get started and a $150 yearly maintenance charge, plus additional fees for features such as graphics.)

Dr. Reynolds said he offered MedSeek the advice not to get a free home page, but because he is a firm believer that participating on the Web provides valuable information to patients. "Within a year's time, doctors and other businesses will nearly all be on the Internet or will see that they need to be," he predicted.

Other physicians view their online activity with less zeal. Nicholas Robinson, MD, a family practitioner in rural Kennett, Mo., for example, created his own home page last November "purely for fun" and doesn't foresee generating any real patient business from the site. "For primary care practitioners, the Yellow Pages are far more beneficial for marketing," he said. He explained that while patients may seek out and even travel to see a specialist, they rarely do so for internists and family physicians.

Dr. Robinson noted, however, that hospitals and large multi-specialty groups might benefit most from putting information about themselves online. Indeed, many groups such as Stanford University in California and Select Health Centers in Michigan have posted details about their physicians' education and specialties; some pages even include photos.

As physicians on the Web taking the do-it-yourself approach show, doctors can circumvent large groups and directory services altogether. The simplest approach is to use the Web boilerplate that commercial services such as America Online include in their monthly fee. Most of the homemade physician pages constructed this way, however, contain only the most basic data, typically the physician's address and occupation. The result is a visually uninteresting page that contains only text.

But wannabe Web authors have a wide range of tools available that can yield more graphically interesting pages. Dr. Robinson used Netscape Navigator Gold 3.0, a new version of the popular Internet browser that has a built-in Web page editor. (The program retails for under $100, but Dr. Robinson pointed out that physicians affiliated with an educational institution can download it from the Internet for free.) Over the course of one weekend, Dr. Robinson created his Web site, which consists of three pages decorated with graphics, colored text and hyperlinks. To get the site online, he turned to his local Internet service provider, which gives him two megabytes of space for his Web page—enough to post plenty of text and some images—for $250 a year.

MySoftware Company in Palo Alto, Calif., offers a combined Web design and publishing program that furnishes users with robust templates complete with more than 1,000 graphics, buttons, forms and other features to create top-notch Web pages. To upload the completed site to the Internet, users simply push a button. The company offers technical support over the phone-the first two calls are free-and the overall cost is $119.95.

Despite the availability of such tools, physicians can be put off by the amount of time and technical ability needed for Web publishing. Although Dr. Robinson enjoyed creating his home page, he agreed that it could be difficult for physicians less familiar with computers and the Internet. Even Dr. Reynolds, who is an advocate of physician involvement with the Web, admitted that the effort involved in creating a Web site is daunting; it's a key reason he created his home page with the help of the MedSeek service.

Besides, will patients actually come through the office door as a result of finding physician information on the Web? Thus far there is little indication that the time and expense it takes to create a Web site pays off. Dr. Reynolds, for example, received one phone call from a patient who had seen his Web page—but he lives in another state and never actually came into the office.


Profile sites

Online physician profile services typically offer physicians' names, office addresses and phone number, their specialty, board certification, excerpts from CVs, types of insurance they accept and an occasional photo or map. Here's a sampling of sites:

AMA Physician Select: http://www.ama-assn.org
DocsOnline http://www.docsonline.com
Doctor Search http://www.doctorsearch.com
Doctorline http://www.doctorline.com
MedSeek http://www.medseek.com

Holly Epstein Ojalvo is a New York City-based freelance writer specializing in health care.

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