A year ago, having a home page on the World Wide Web was considered cutting edge. But today, cheap and available technology makes it easy for any hospital to create a Web site.
Many are. HospitalWeb (http: demOnmac.mgh.harvard.edu/hospitalweb.html), an informal directory maintained by the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, listed 141 U.S. hospitals with Web servers as of Dec. 19, with additions being made at the rate of about one a day.
But hospitals haven't yet figured out how to use the Web effectively.
Scott Regan, consulting leader for marketing and public relations at Brookwood Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., accessed hundreds of hospital home pages and found many contain little more than departmental directories.
"There's this frantic pace among hospital people to be out on the Web, but I don't think anybody's given any thought to whether it's applicable to marketing and public relations," he said.
Leading the effort to use the Web is Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., which has set out to become "the premier healthcare information site," according to the big block letters on its corporate home page (http: www.columbia-hca.com). The company intends to establish home pages for its 335 hospitals by the end of March.
Columbia's corporate home page has been drawing 100,000 visitors a month, compared with fewer than 300 a month last spring, said J. Tod Fetherling, Columbia's senior market research manager.
He attributed the growth in part to Columbia's effort to give consumers and physicians what they want: disease-specific information, bulletin boards, physician-to-physician forums and other changing content.
And unlike other major corporations, which put their Web sites under the purview of information services, Fetherling said, Columbia handed its Web operations to the marketing staff last summer.
"In August, we changed from the advertising message to become an information source, and that's when everything really changed," he said.
Columbia boosted its on-line presence in October when it started weekly physician chats on America Online, where users can query Columbia specialists.
The chats typically draw 150 to 300 people, with one cardiac surgeon drawing 450, the second-largest live chat in AOL attendance records behind Michael Jackson, Fetherling said.
The chats have proved popular enough with consumers and physicians that they have been extended to two nights a week, Fetherling said.
Fetherling said Columbia is trying to market to major search engines and directories, which direct users to popular sites, and is trying to establish electronic links between the Columbia home page and other healthcare sites.
Fetherling cites a statistic that three in five households are currently seeking healthcare information. "There's a real strong hunger for health information on-line," he said.
Columbia hospitals are experimenting with their own Web sites.
Last week, Columbia's Central Florida Division was to debut a physician on-line directory where consumers can type in a ZIP code and find profiles and photos of the closest Columbia doctors.
Columbia's Montgomery Regional Hospital, a 146-bed hospital in Blacksburg, Va., which is part of an innovative electronic village in its area, gets more than 350 visitors a week. The most popular sites are job listings and women's and fitness center information, officials said.
Partly, the site is a way to publicize the hospital's $14 million renovation and stop migration to larger hospitals.
"The hospital was perceived in the community as a country hospital.....(A Web site) makes us look a little more progressive," said Scott Snyder, hospital director of information services.
It's a way to satisfy the growing number of people, including a surprising number of senior citizens, who prefer to get data on line, said Judy Tynan, director of marketing and public affairs. She said it also helps physician recruitment by allowing physicians anywhere in the country to access data about the hospital.
"Everyone needs to go this way to market," she said.
But other hospitals are struggling to find ways to make their sites useful.
Brookwood Medical Center will try an interactive approach when its Web page debuts this month.
The site will include a heart-healthy dining program with local restaurants, where users can find recipes and even order food to be delivered.
The 586-bed hospital will give away free cancer and heart screenings to users who leave their addresses and will update the page weekly to encourage return visits.
Regan has no idea whether it will work. The hospital is spending $10,000 to develop its site.