In the modern landscape, newly-formed consortia are bound to want their own websites - but these must genuinely justify their existence, says Precedent strategist Mike Guida.

Everyone wants to know what commissioning consortia will look like. We have to hope that, online, these new organisations will have a more focused and defined role than primary care trust websites did.

Commissioning consortia will need to communicate with professional and business audiences through various means and their internet presence will be one important channel. But the real question is: should they bother trying to engage the public online or just use NHS Choices?

GPs often say that their profiles on NHS Choices are out of date, but the point is that practices have, and consortia could also have, the tools to maintain up to date information themselves.

Keeping content up to date is the perennial problem for all those who want a useful and vibrant website.

At the moment it looks as if we will have at least three kinds of web service jostling for position: the central super-site NHS Choices, existing home-grown GP websites (there are likely to be thousands) and now several hundred new consortium websites stepping on to the stage looking for attention and something useful to do.

This is of course a recipe for audience bewilderment and a waste of precious resources unless clear relationships and roles are understood for these potentially competitive destinations. Many players in the NHS and central bodies have suggested consortia really do not need websites, but it seems unlikely any new organisation can be denied the pleasure of a shiny new piece of technology.

The killer question

So if commissioning consortium sites are to exist and be useful to the public, what considerations should teams bear in mind before developing them?

  • Establish the purpose of your new website There may be a compelling reason for consortium websites to exist, but the killer question remains: what will be the business and customer value of your online effort?

The NHS already has thousands of websites to market and maintain, so you really do need to reassure yourself that there are audiences who will seek you out. Remember, internet users are highly task-oriented, which means you need to know what they want and expect from you. This is very different from simply thinking about what you want to say to your audiences.

If consortium sites are going to be the much talked about “local NHS” online then all the basics, like contact information, opening times and appointments, will be expected. Many GP practices have the capability to allow patients to book appointments and request repeat prescriptions online but this has yet to be implemented. Connecting for Health has plenty of evidence to show that the public say they want these features, as well as the chance to email their GP.

  • Don’t do it all yourself: Use the best of NHS content and features. NHS Choices has a team who will help you syndicate local service postcode search tools, conditions and treatments information and videos. You can plug this into your new site and whenever NHS Choices updates the content your site is updated automatically too. In fact, you can build your entire site from free NHS Choices components and go home early. But you do have to keep the central site up to date.

Coordinating with local authorities on health promotion campaigns will be important because the public are not yet thinking about council websites as the place to go for health information. Linking to campaign sites and the local authority site is likely to be the minimum requirement – you may want some content on your site too.

  • Keep the navigation and structure simple and standard: We have been helping foundation trusts and primary care trusts define the top tier of their navigation and increasingly this is becoming standardised, which makes it easier for the public to orientate themselves and more efficient for the NHS. A key navigational requirement for consortium websites will be to make sure people can easily locate a practice local to them, based on location, practice name or doctor name.

What consortia really need is a set of flexible templates, to prevent endless duplication around England.

  • Consider branding and tone carefully: While the status of consortia is being hammered out by the NHS, it is too early to say whether NHS branding will be appropriate or allowed. Many GP sites have their own visual identity and do not tend to look much like the NHS. NHS Choices scores for the recognition and trust that the public place in the NHS logo and web address. Photography that reflects local people and perspectives is often worth considering and this is something PCTs were getting the hang of. The public respond well to high quality imagery and it can create an engaging mood on your site.
  • Take publishing seriously: Building websites is the easy bit, keeping them up to date is a commitment that surprises most organisations. The key here is to make sure you have a simple, easy to use content management system that has the basic functionality in place, like the ability to create service A to Z listings and to take NHS Choices feeds.

Open source software can often be a good value and reliable choice. Sharepoint is probably not the answer for smaller sites. The point is you need a system that makes publishing easy for non-technical teams so they can keep the website up to date. Alternatively, do a deal with NHS Choices and get them to do it all for you.

  • Go easy on social media: This might have some legs but it is worth getting the fundamentals right first. Social media activity around local campaigns may have lots of potential, but any new conversations need managing and monitoring.