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How to make a website that's an asset to your practice

Websites are increasingly useful in general practice, especially since the introduction of

the new contract – Dr Stephen Gardiner and practice manager Rachel Stark explain why

Practice websites are an effective and increasingly important tool for communicating with patients. They can be used to provide information about the practice and its services, to provide health information and to enable patients to contact the practice outside surgery hours. They can also be used to run online patient satisfaction surveys and e-mail consultations, and all in all are a valuable tool in the context of the quality framework.

Websites are, at their simplest, pages of text written in Microsoft Word which is provided to all NHS practices free of charge. These pages are held on a computer that is connected to the internet for others to view. They can be also be complex, interactive websites offering direct hyperlinks to other sites and even your surgery appointment system.

When developing your website first decide whether to develop it in-house or to contract with a web design company. The major cost of developing a website is the time needed to plan and design it.

There are design companies with a particular interest in GP website design. These are often run by GPs themselves. The cost of setting up a website is usually about £350.There are even organisations that will provide a basic website free of charge using sponsorship income (such as www.surgeriesonline.co.uk).

Think carefully about content when you design a site. Generally patients want information about the surgery and to find out how to access services. This might include the subject areas in your practice leaflet such as how to contact the surgery, who to call out of hours and how to make comments or complaints. Key members of the practice team can be introduced along with their roles.

Look for inspiration from other practice websites (www.gpwebsites.net) as well as from non-medical web businesses. Important design features include clear, concise information, easy navigation and attractive yet minimal graphics. Don't be tempted to use all-over bold colours, clutter the page with graphics or use animated cartoons – internet users generally want quick information from a site that is easy on the eye.

Apart from local information your website can also provide health information. Preparing this may seem cumbersome but it is an opportunity for patients to access reliable information. It is also

possible to provide links to other health-related sites such as www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk

If you want to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the internet, interactive features and online services can

be further developed.

These can enable patients to access services within the practice at any time and also save telephone calls to the surgery.

Such services might include cancelling appointments, ordering repeat prescriptions, requesting hospital pre-admission forms or ongoing medical certificates. Some software companies such as EMIS also allow appointments to be booked online.

Your website can be used to collect information on patients' health for GMS2. Patients are surprisingly happy to give information, for instance about their asthma control, over the internet and a link on the repeat prescription area would encourage them to do this.

Travel vaccination questionnaires are particularly useful, giving patients time to determine which vaccinations they need according to their plans.

Security of information is very important. If you offer online services the site should be hosted on a secure server. Patients should be warned that, even with this added security, the internet and e-mail are not totally secure and risks to confidentiality need to be acknowledged with appropriate disclaimers on all online forms. This is particularly important if patients are sending information about their health or medication.

Remember once the practice website has been designed the practice needs to provide ongoing maintenance – especially if the website features seasonal items. This costs about £250 upwards. If a patient logs on to a website that has not been updated and includes out-of-date information they will lose confidence in it.

Finally, if you intend to offer a response service be careful as you may find, as we have, that you receive requests for advice not only from your own patients but also from those living hundreds of miles away.

Stephen Gardiner is a GP in Bridgwater, Somerset

Rachel Stark is his practice manager

Practice websites

can be used to:

•Provide health information to patients

•Enable patients to contact the practice outside surgery hours

•Reduce practice admin

•Run patient satisfaction surveys

•Conduct e-mail consultations with patients

•Provide links to other health-related sites

•Provide information about the practice

•Collect information on patients for GMS2

•Market the practice – for instance to the PCO for enhanced services

Useful websites

• www.surgeriesonline.co.uk

• www.gpwebsites.net

• www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk

• www.internet-gp.com

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