Many hospitals and health systems are in the embryonic stages of tapping the Internet's ability to better serve patients and other industry constituencies, according to a survey of 320 hospital and hospital system Web sites.
Conducted by the healthcare group of Computer Sciences Corp., an information technology services company based in El Segundo, Calif., the survey results were presented at the Customer Based Marketing Strategies conference held last month
While healthcare executives increasingly cite the Internet as a top information systems priority, only 8% of the Web sites CSC surveyed give patients the option of scheduling an appointment online.
And, just 13% enable patients to request medical advice from a physician or nurse.
CSC applied 42 criteria to its assessment of the surveyed Web sites. The criteria were grouped under two headings: usability and performance, and content and quality.
Web sites from hospitals and hospital systems in California, Massachusetts and New York represented roughly 27% of the sites studied.
Of the 320 Web sites, approximately 57% offer "purely informational" resources. That essentially amounts to "publishing brochures online," said Christine Malcolm, vice president of provider solutions at CSC.
Some 36% of the sites offer interactive features such as patient community chat rooms, and 6% offer transactional features such as links to payers and formulary information. Only 1% of the sites deliver services over the Internet, such as an online consultation (See chart).
Regardless of a Web site's quality and content, it's not a valuable resource to patients or any other constituency if they can't easily find it.
According to CSC's assessment, Internet search engines failed to list 20% of hospital Web sites in the survey. CSC surveyors said the sites that could not be found may lack the programming codes that help search engines hunt them down.
Even if patients and business partners use a search engine that leads them to the right hospital Web site, they are likely to encounter new frustrations once they get there.
Fewer than half of Web sites surveyed had a built-in search function to facilitate smoother navigation and guide Internet users to the specific information they seek, the survey found.
If hospitals and health systems do not provide clinical content, they may lose patients to competitors and dot-coms that do, said John Eudes, president of Greystone.net, an Atlanta-based Internet strategy company focused on healthcare.
As online clinical information becomes more of a commodity, Eudes said, hospitals must be careful to select content partners with strong business models and a demonstrated history of protecting the information patients share online.