Health Websites: Opportunities, Failures and Tips for Success

The world wide web provides us with a near infinite fountain of information on a day-to-day basis. The opportunity that this represents for the world of public health should not be lost on anyone. In fact, according to Cline and Haynes’ study entitled ‘Consumer health information seeking on the Internet: the state of the art,’ there are more than 70,000 websites that provide information about health and over 50 million people worldwide that use the internet to find health information. Health websites are a valuable resource for public health professionals and the public for a myriad of reasons, including near universal access to information, the ability to tailor information to specific individuals, the opportunity for interactivity, community building and support groups, and the ability to remain anonymous when it comes to private health issues and concerns (Cline and Haynes).

Despite these clear benefits, studies have shown that websites that cater to health are often not as successful as they ought to be. In one study, ‘Use of a Website to Accomplish Health Behavior Change: If You Build It, Will They Come? And Will It Work If They Do?‘ it was shown that of 7706 participants that were recruited to test the efficacy of an interactive health website, only 169 or 2.2% actually used it.

No matter how useful the information and features of a website are, it can only be useful if people engage with it. That is why it is important to make sure websites are as user-friendly and appealing as possible. Here are some tips for getting your website to be used actively by your target audience:

  • Keep it simple
    •  One of the number one reason that  websites fail is due to information or design overload (Cline and Haynes). Be sure to use headings and text with plain and understandable language, and to write short and sweet paragraphs. Do NOT over design your website and be sure to stick to dark text on light background, if not good old black on white.
  • Translate the site into the languages of your target audience
    • Many public health websites have a button on the top right corner allowing visitors to select their language. It is critically important not to leave out anyone in your target population due to language barriers! Here, not only offers a Spanish version of their website, but also offers a larger text version for the seeing impaired.
  • Make the site interactive
    • Adding ways for visitors to interact with your website in order to make it more personal to their needs is a great way to keep people actively engaged. Consider adding live chats, or features such as the ability to check off symptoms, or inputting  age, gender, etc to tailor information to specific users. Here WebMD allows visitors to check off their symptoms according to their age and gender in order to cater results to their specific issues.
  • Demonstrate your legitimacy
    • Cline and Haynes discuss the importance of establishing your legitimacy and authority on health issues due to the sea of information on the web and the difficulty the average user has with discerning between the good and the not so good. Be sure to have a fleshed out ‘About Us’ section, in which you state your credentials as well as disclose your mission and any possible conflicts of interest. You should also be sure to allow for feedback and peer review to ensure that there is a self-corrective mechanism for the site’s information. Finally, be sure to always cite sources when presenting news and/or research so users can follow up and feel confident in the reliability of your information.Follow this link to UNICEF’s Who We Are page for an example of a job well done.
  • Update continuously
    •  Finally, be sure to keep your site updated! If news, links and/or information appear outdated you will lose your audience.

Best of luck, and let us know in the comments if you have any additional tips!


One thought on “Health Websites: Opportunities, Failures and Tips for Success

  1. Maia, I like that you and I wrote very similar posts. Great minds think alike :]

    I definitely agree with your point “demonstrate your legitimacy”. I think that is a HUGE issue with the internet these days — anyone can post anything about anything. While freedom of speech is welcome, being able to filter through fiction and fact becomes quite taxing, especially when it comes to health-related information, which can mean the difference between life and death in some instances. It’s also difficult because there are so many papers that are published from legitimate websites, that are then retracted because it turns out they were inaccurate. Providing as many references as possible is definitely a good sign of truthful information.

    I also agree that interactive sites are much more captivating. Websites that have you take little quizzes and then provide you with some statistics at the end are some of my favorites

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