Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media , April 8, 2015
Accurately representing medical procedures online is a conundrum for hospital marketers, who risk scaring off potential patients by posting facts that would be better explained face-to-face by a physician. But there are ways to tackle this challenge.
Even for those of us who should know better, it's nearly impossible not to Google our health ailments. If you think you might have the flu or possibly sprained your ankle, typing symptoms into your phone's web browser is just plain easier than calling your physician's urgent care line.
And even with the knowledge that we're putting our privacy at risk, there's the alluring element of instant gratification, whether it's an alleviation of our fears or the piling on of even more serious concerns.
Informed healthcare consumers and savvy internet users have figured out how to navigate the plethora of results, choosing WebMD over Wikipedia, .org and .edu URLs over .coms. The Mayo Clinic has even gotten into the medical search game by offering up their doctors to fact check Google results for commonly searched conditions.
Hospital and health system websites have traditionally been above scrutiny in terms of providing accurate medical information— they've been safe harbors in a sea of amateurish Yahoo question boards and unwieldy Reddit threads. According to a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, however, information posted on hospital websites is often misleading.
Promotion Presented as Fact
"Valuable data and tools—including hospital quality ratings, professional treatment guidelines, and patient decision aids—are increasingly available via the Internet and may help patients facing decisions about where to seek care or whether to undergo a medical procedure," states JAMA's study, titled "Risks of Imbalanced Information on US Hospital Websites."
"Clinicians often encourage patients to engage with these types of information as a means of promoting patient involvement in medical decisions and offloading tasks from the too-brief clinical encounter. Unfortunately, valuable online health information may be hard to identify amid a growing number of online advertisements."
For the study, researchers looked at how the 317 US hospitals offering trans-aortic valve replacement (TAVR) are advertising the procedure. They found that while all of the hospitals touted the procedure as minimally invasive, just one-quarter mentioned the risks, and fewer than one in 20 explained those risks numerically.
"Our findings suggest that web-based advertising of TAVR to the public by hospitals may understate the established risks of this procedure and provide little context for the magnitude of those risks to inform patient decision making," the study reads. "Although consumers who are bombarded by television commercials may be aware that they are viewing an advertisement, hospital websites often have the appearance of [being] an education portal."
A Marketing Catch-22
Accurately representing procedures online is a conundrum for hospital marketers, who are likely wary of scaring off potential patients by posting risks that would be better explained face-to-face by a physician. And, since this facet of hospital marketing isn't currently regulated, most hospitals probably aren't in a rush to slap a big fat warning label on their online procedure information when their competitor down the street isn't going to.
That said, for hospital websites to keep their pristine status in the public eye as providers of comprehensive medical information, marketing leaders need to reexamine how they're presenting their services online.
While it may take some creativity, there are ways to outline risks without sending patients into a panic. It's important to consider that a decent chunk of patients who are looking on your website about having a procedure done at your hospital have already read all about it on WebMD and are intimately familiar with even the most obscure worst-case scenarios. Those patients will be relieved to read your experts' explanation of those risks and the steps your hospital is taking to minimize them.
Embedded physician videos are a smart way to tackle this sort of sensitive subject, and can act as a stand-in for the face-to-face discussion the patient will ultimately have with their doctor. By explaining the risks in simple terms on video, physicians can simultaneously address patient concerns and win their trust.
It may take some getting used to, but transparency and good marketing aren't mutually exclusive. Smart organizations will take this study to heart and realize their website's copy should be held to higher standards than a billboard.