Using the Internet to Increase (and Decrease) Your Practice
By: Donald M. Petersen, Jr.
The Web Promises New Opportunities, but for Whom?
By now, you have read, heard, and been approached by a small army of advertisements and sales people promising you wealth and prosperity through the magic of the Internet. While many of these “start-ups” didn’t exist a year ago and couldn’t even spell “Chiropractic” last month, they are ready to sell you the latest array of web services “designed specifically for your practice.” Enough with all of the hype, promises, and scare tactics!
What can the Internet really do for you? What is real and what isn’t? What will increase your practice, and what will decrease it? Let’s begin answering these questions from your patients’ point of view.
Who’s Online? On average, half of your adult patients are on the Internet. On an average day, almost one out of every three patients you see was (or will be) online that day, with one in four sending e-mail that day. Many are probably much more web-savvy than you realize.
Why Are They Online? Sixteen of the top 27 Internet activities involve obtaining information. Approximately 7% of web users (3 ½% of your patients) look for “health/medical” information everyday. Less than 5% (2 ½% of your patients) bought something online today. But that number is expected to grow dramatically.
Internet’s Information Impact. The search for information has been extensive over time. To date, 61% of women (over 30% of your female patients) and 47% of men (over 23% of your male patients) have obtained health information online. What did they learn about Chiropractic, and from whom?
The above makes obvious the primary benefit the Internet offers your practice: the ability to share information with your patients and community. Providing information about Chiropractic and its benefits can also lead to new patients and help educate your existing ones. There are several mechanisms to accomplish this:
- Patient E-mail Newsletters. E-mail is the single most performed action among Internet users (52% send e-mail on an average day). This is the first and most direct method of educating your patients — reaching out to your community and keeping your name in people’s minds. Plus, e-mails are extremely inexpensive and easily forwarded. They arm your patients with important information they can share with family, friends and co-workers with the “click” of a mouse.
To be effective, your e-mail newsletter must offer valuable information. You can write your own newsletter, but try to add health and wellness information along with specific Chiropractic content. Several Chiropractic companies (ChiroWeb.com being one of these) offer this service for a very small fee. These companies supply the content and include your office information and photograph as part of your patient e-mail newsletter. In addition, at least one company has consumer subscribers they can refer to you.
- Your Own Website. This is the primary method of introducing yourself to prospective patients or communicating with existing ones. Your website should include enough information about Chiropractic to encourage someone to seek care, and enough about your practice so that their first appointment will be with you.
There are several features that every website should include:
- Information about the benefits of Chiropractic
- Information about you, your staff and your practice
- Your photograph
- Map to your office
- Question and answer forum
- Contact information
- The ability to request an appointment
- The ability to subscribe to your patient e-mail newsletter
- Constantly changing content (new reasons to visit your site)
While many companies can create you website, you can create your own using a website generator. These allow you to develop your own site (in as little as 30 minutes) with preloaded content you can use, edit, or replace with your own. These website generators are easy to use (you only need to be able to type) while allowing you to create a rather sophisticated website. Best of all, they are very inexpensive. No longer do you have to pay a development fee and a monthly hosting fee (totaling $500 – $3,000 per year). You can now establish your site for less than $100 per year.
- Search Engines and Directory Listings. Having your own website can be a well-kept secret, unless you tell people your web address. You can tell your patients about it (and they will hopefully tell others), and you can put a link to it in your patient e-mail newsletter. But with a little more effort, you can also tell the world.
The first thing you should do is submit your website to as many search engines as possible. This will make it easier for potential patients to find your site. There are several services that will submit your website to thousands of search engines for as little as $29 per year, for two search engine submissions.
The second thing you can do is insure your placement on Chiropractic online directories. There are several out there, some with little or no traffic and some with millions of page views per month. Insure you are listed on the free ones, and pick one or two of the top ones to purchase premium listings on. With more than half of all U.S. adults on the Internet, online Chiropractic directories hold much greater value than even a year ago.
These three methods of using the Internet to promote your practice may seem complicated, but they’re not. In addition, they are very inexpensive. Just one new patient will more than cover the total annual fees for your own patient e-mail newsletter, website, directory listing and search engine submission.
The Hidden Dangers of E-Commerce
“Everyone is getting rich on e-commerce — why shouldn’t you?”
First of all, let’s dispel that myth. E-commerce holds no magic. This was learned the hard way by the Walt Disney company, when they closed down their Toysmart.com website last May, laying off all 170 employees.
The principles of conducting a successful business online are the same as they are for traditional “brick-and-mortar” businesses. Suddenly, many Internet companies are offering you a chance to “partner” in order to make lots of money through e-commerce. They promise to do all the work and offer a “turn key” program that includes a free website, your own store, and more. But these offers can include new pitfalls you may not be aware of:
Interference in the Doctor-Patients Relationship. Your current practice consists of assessing your patients’ needs, providing the care indicated, and monitoring your success. In doing this, you establish a trust relationship that is the foundation of your success as a doctor. When you expose your patients to your new e-commerce “partner,” you unwittingly open the door to potentially damaging situations:
- Advice from your e-commerce partner that may conflict with yours
- Products and services offered that may not be appropriate
- Other profit-motivated actions that may damage the trust your patients have in you.
Affiliate Programs = Customer Acquisition. You may not realize it, but the reason hundreds of Internet “start-ups” are so willing to sell products for you, pay you commissions, and provide free websites is because they desperately need customers. As start-up companies, they probably didn’t have a single customer six months ago. But the venture capitalists funding them want results quickly, and results are measured by customer lists and sales.
The easiest way to get customers fast is to buy someone else’s. This is where the affiliate program comes in. You get a free website and a commission (or fee) for helping the Internet start-up get new customers, otherwise known as your patients. True, you may get a 10% commission on what your patients buy, but the minute they make that first purchase, they are not only your patient, but their customer.
The Conflict Between Your Patients and Their Customers. Suddenly, there are two loyalties where there was only one. When there is a conflict, whose advice should your patients (their customers) take? What other services might they be offering? If you decide not to continue with the Internet start up, what’s to keep them from referring your patient to one of their “participating Chiropractors” who will offer them a “special discount” as a start-up customer?
Sound unrealistic? Managed care has basically accomplished the same thing. They got between you, your patients, and the payers.
Is It Legal? There are several prominent attorneys in the Chiropractic profession who have expressed their opinion that the sharing of e-commerce commissions by Internet start up companies with DCs is in violation of the Stark Laws. If this is the case, you may be risking a lot more than money. While this is probably something the start-up won’t tell you, you should consult your attorney before signing any type of e-commerce agreement.
What’s in the Future?
The trend for the future of the Internet is clear. More people are getting online and users are constantly finding new uses for the existing services. It will only take a few technological advancements to brings major changes to how you practice with the Internet:
Everyone’s Online. When it began over 30 years ago, the Internet was strictly a place for academicians. Today, nearly 90% of all U.S. adults (approximately 220 million) are online, and the number continues to grow. With most of your patients coming online, making appointments, sending reminders and answering questions on the web will soon be standard.
Faster Transmission Speeds. Once faster wireless connections are standard, most of our typing will be replaced with voice and video transmissions. Online consultations, video exercise demonstrations, and live video patient lectures will be a normal part of your day.
Smarter Than Humans? There are some who suggest that the intelligence of our computers will exceed human intelligence in the next 20 years. Should this come to pass, you may find your own analytical skills augmented by a “clinical computer.” But Chiropractic is more than just analysis. Enhancing this aspect of your practice will allow greater expression of the philosophy and art of Chiropractic.