How the Web Can Bring Order to the Messiest Health System

health system websites

Healthcare systems are messy. Think about the growing number of different facilities and the departmental divisions that aren’t meaningful to patients but very meaningful internally. Consider the various groups battling with one another over the same patients, or the lack of a consistent philosophy and approach for a given service or procedure. It’s easy in the day-to-day operations of a health system to ignore the complexity of our organizations. I find that when we work on the website we’re pulling off the band-aid and exposing all of that mess.

And all of this gets even messier as our organizations get larger. Building new clinics and other facilities, purchasing former competitors and hiring more physicians are just tossing a few more cans of paint on a Jackson Pollock.

While health systems should be working to iron out all of these issues, and perhaps one day they will, for the foreseeable future our organizations will continue to be a mess.  And that’s OK. It’s our job as marketers and Web experts to create an online layer over all of this that simplifies the story for our patients.

Simplifying Your Story for the Web

One of the key challenges in this process is one of granularity – do you tell your online story in one big website, do you break it into a small number of mid-sized sites or do you create an array of very small sites representing every hospital, clinic and physician?

Finding the right approach for your organization requires you to balance a number of considerations:

  • The brand question: In general, there’s only so much brand awareness that a patient will give to healthcare organizations. When there are more brands in a market, that pie is split smaller and smaller. As a result, more and more healthcare organizations are moving to consolidate their brand under a system-level brand which naturally leads to a more consolidated online presence.
  • Resource requirements: A large number of small sites is typically more work than a small number of larger sites. Those small sites will have some degree of overlap with one another and it creates more content that must be written. Every site requires a certain amount of care and feeding on a regular basis and the number of sites multiplies that burden.
  • Politics: Many facilities have grown very attached to their names over the years, making rebranding quite difficult at times. Likewise, they often like the control that they have with an independent site and often feel that they’re less special if not given their own online presence.
  • Geography: If a health system’s footprint is concentrated in a contiguous area, then it often makes sense to present itself as a single system brand and leverage their size. If, on the other hand, they’re scattered thinly around the country, then the brand-building value of a single brand, or a single website, may be less.
  • Patient access: Bottom line, the issue comes to doing what we can do to get patients connected with the services that they need. Patients will have a relationship with a local hospital, clinic or physician. Often, when sites become more fragmented, patients may miss classes, services and other resources that aren’t associated with whatever point it is that they’re starting from.

All of these factors play into these decisions. Perhaps it’s no surprise that more healthcare organizations are rethinking their brands today than at any time in recent memory. And the way that the brand story will play out online has become a significant factor in those core brand decisions.

The Trend: System-Centric Websites

The result has been a move, generally, to a smaller number of system-centric websites rather than a number of largely disconnected sites – breaking down information silos and presenting a more comprehensive system picture.

While some organizations will go from silos to a system Web presence as a single project, not every health system will roll all of their sites together into a single consolidated presence in one shot. There’s a range of options here:

  • The Full Monty: Yes, some organizations make the transition from a cluster of sites to a unified system website in one fell swoop, and just put things out there, so to speak.  This works best when the organization has already been in a process of unifying the brand and has unwavering support from the c-suite. Even in those scenarios, this process is tough – for example, you’d be amazed at how hard it is to pin down what services are performed at which facilities.
  • The grafted site: Sometimes one website isn’t really just one website. Sure they all share a single site root, but under the covers, you may still have distinct sub-sites or sections that act in many ways as separate sites with distinct navigation structures and redundant content about services. This may be the desired final state as it keeps the distinct identity of the individual facilities while facilitating greater interlinking, but these structures are often very confusing for end users if not done very carefully. More often this is used as a transitional phase allowing for a more incremental process of transitioning the information architecture and giving more time for large amounts of content development that are required.
  • Core with satellites: What’s interesting about building consistent stories across your health system is that some parts of the system just don’t fit into that unified story. Children’s hospitals, nursing schools, or health insurance companies may be part of your Integrated Delivery Network, but are more likely to require their own Web presence outside of the system core.

If you’re thinking about making the shift to a system approach online, or just want to learn more about presenting a unified presence to your site visors, join us for our upcoming webinar on June 26, 2014, From Silos to Systems: New Approaches to Web Strategy. We’ll explore the unique challenges of moving from Web silos to a system site and see examples of healthcare organizations that have recently made the change.

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