Reference books in a library are chosen with great care. Librarians realize that patrons will often go to a reference source as the first, and often only, step in researching a subject. That source should therefore be the best.

A physician’s website should include a section that links to several carefully selected online reference sources. As with any publication, book or electronic, some sources will be stronger in some areas than others. For this reason, this section should provide as wide a range of sources as possible.

The entries on the reference shelf should be grouped by subject for ease of use. In addition to the title and a hot-link to the website, you should add an annotation explaining the scope of the resource – what areas of information it offers – and any notes on why it is included on “your” shelf (“WebMD is a good source for general information…” or “The site is operated by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and has a strong sections for recently-diagnosed patients and those just beginning treatment…”). If a site has a sign-in feature, this should be explained in your notes, along with such options as email bulletins and access to support groups.

If a website can be reached on a public workstation without a fee-based password, you are not violating copyright law by hot-linking to the website. In fact, the website operators would thank you for creating a link to their website. Here are some things to think about for your physician web design:

General reference: There are a number of these, and you probably have your favorites. Pick two or three that you trust and log onto them to re-acquaint yourself with their coverage, special features and particular strengths. Look at the sites through the eyes of a lay patient and provide guidance in your annotation (“Be sure to click on the tab marked ‘Identifying Medication by Markings’ when you get a new prescription from the pharmacy. Drug stores can make mistakes, too!”). Even if you don’t agree with everything in one general reference source, by offering several sources you can “triangulate” information for your patients.

Special subjects: Whether you have a family practice or are a specialist, you almost certainly have a cluster of patients with particular needs. Gerontology issues, childhood diseases, substance abuse, medically-supervised weight loss, specific types of cancers and many, many other subjects have specific online resources to which you can refer your patients. Again, you will need to log on to these sites and verify that they are at a standard with which you feel comfortable. After all, it is your website with your name at the top of the main page, so your recommendations are connected to your reputation.

Non-electronic sources: Despite rumors to the contrary, the Internet is not the sole source of all things in the universe. Sometimes, an old-fashioned book made from paper and ink can be handy. Just make sure that any book you recommend is in print and can be purchased either from a local bookstore or online (there we go again!).

Beyond medicine: Serious medical issues, whether from sudden physical trauma or chronic disease, carry with them equally serious emotional consequences. If you have favorite resources – electronic, recorded or in print – that offer emotional or spiritual support to patients facing medical crises, a section in your reference shelf can be beneficial.

Dependable reference sources not only add high value to your physician website, but build trust with your patients. References should be selected carefully, and your “reference shelf” built with the needs of your patient base in mind. The section should be reviewed and verified regularly to make sure that it is as up to date as possible. The time and effort you put into this section of your physician website will make a very real contribution to your medical practice.

– George Bear