The website building process isn’t as simple as it used to be. Due to recent developments, practitioners need to ensure that their medical websites are accessible to those with disabilities.
Medical websites are a tricky subject for healthcare practitioners.
On the one hand, they provide a helpful platform to attract new patients or re-engage with old patients.
And on the other hand, they sometimes pose a considerable risk for HIPAA and ADA compliance.
But, while the risks can be a big pain in the butt, the good outweighs the bad for most.
The process of building a medical or healthcare website isn’t as simple as it used to be. Whether you’re a doctor, dentist, physiotherapist or yoga teacher, you need to ensure that your website is accessible to those with disabilities.
In this article, you’ll learn the two most significant reasons why you need an accessible website for your practice.
Then, you’ll learn some tips and tools that will help you get there.
Let’s start with the simpler explanation for this change: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Reason #1: ADA Law and Website Accessibility
The ADA is not new. It was enacted in 1990 and prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
It requires that all entities, organizations, public, private, and not-for-profit, provide equal access to all goods, services, information, and communication.
What is new is the extension of accessibility standards from brick and mortar establishments to also include the internet.
Yes. Your website.
On January 18, 2017, a series of updates to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became effective.
In short, it mandated that all electronic and information technology (EIT), including websites, electronic documents and more, procured by or produced within US federal government agencies be compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
In addition, Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a federal law that was enacted in 2010.
It requires that covered medical practitioners make their Information and Communications Technology (ICT), including websites, accessible to persons with disabilities.
While conformance to WCAG is not mandated, it is highly recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Who is covered under Section 1557?
- Any health program or activity—in whole or part—that receives funding from the HHS, such as practitioners that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements.
- Any health program or activity that HHS directly administers
- Health Insurance Marketplaces and all plans offered by issuers that participate in those Marketplaces.
So, what does all of that technical jargon mean for your practice?
It means that:
- It’s safe to say that medical websites fall under the federal laws that ensure equal rights and access for people with disabilities.
- To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 1557, you need to make your website accessible to those with disabilities.
- Building to WCAG standards is the safest route to achieve a level of website accessibility that will be viewed as acceptable to entities such as:
- the U.S. Federal Government
- the U.S. Department of Justice,
- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
- federal and state courts,
- disability advocacy organizations,
- and most importantly, persons with disabilities.
And that’s quite a lot of people who could potentially need to use your website.
Recent statistics estimate that close to 20% of the United States’ population has some qualifying disability.
But the reality is that there are several reasons why someone may find it difficult to access a website.
And not all of them are as evident as you may think, making this is a very widespread and serious issue.
Website Accessibility Lawsuits
Not having an ADA compliant website could lead to a fine of $75,000, which is more expensive than the cost of a compliant website.
The best path forward is to take this matter seriously.
And if you think this couldn’t happen to your practice, then think again.
Website-related ADA claims are on the rise, and they’re affecting much more than medical practitioners.
Retailers, restaurants, education and financial institutions are all experiencing an increase in lawsuits, which signals a wider pushback by individuals with disabilities for fair treatment on the web.
Even before the 2018 changes, there were at least 814 lawsuits over the issue of website accessibility in 2017 alone.
Now that these accusations have legal precedence and the backing of the ADA, do you really want to take your chances on getting caught?
Website accessibility lawsuits against major brands
Major companies aren’t exempt.
Target, Netflix, and H&R Block were all hit with hefty penalties for failing to meet certain ADA standards.
If these lawsuits and fines are happening all around you, even to major sites, then it could happen to you. The last thing you need is a lawsuit or ADA fines.
And as previously mentioned, the costs outweigh the risk.
So there’s no reason not to be compliant, and every reason to be.
Reason #2: Patient Trust
While it’s always advisable to do what the government requires of your practice, it shouldn’t be the only reason to make your website accessible.
In fact, you can argue that it shouldn’t even be the primary reason to take action.
One of the unfortunate trends to emerge in recent years has shown that trust in the healthcare system as a whole is on the decline.
While it’s easy to argue that the decline is somewhat universal across many industries, that’s still a poor excuse to not work on building trust through your practice.
So why the decline in trust in the healthcare system?
Studies have shown that the decline is due to three main factors.
- Consumers feel the quality of healthcare services has diminished.
- The quality of interactions has lessened.
- The autonomy of practitioners is lower than ever.
This presents a challenge to all healthcare practitioners. You need to do everything in your power to instill trust in your services.
This leads to some pretty substantial benefits too.
Three in five Americans are willing to try another practitioner if the experience is better.
And these days, many customer relationships begin with your website.
It’s up to you to make sure that the relationships started on your site don’t end immediately.
And one of the best ways to boost favorability with patients is to make your site accessible to everyone.
If they can use your site, they’ll begin to trust you even before they walk into your practice.
How Your Website Can Be Accessible
There are four overarching areas of WCAG compliance for a website that should guide your efforts to keep your website accessible. Your site must be:
- Perceivable – So any user is able to understand the presentation of your site, whether blind, deaf, or with navigational limitations.
- Operable – Anyone can navigate your website, or has the ability to use a simplified version that maintains functionality
- Understandable – The information you provide is accessible and easy for those with disabilities to act on
- Robust – able to be interpreted accurately by all parties
Let’s break down what these components could potentially look like for your real-life user by looking at some of the most common disabilities and how they impact your website.
For individuals with visual impairment, your website can be difficult to read and interpret. While there’s no universal fix for this, there are a few ways you can help.
First of all, make sure that the text on your site is easy to read.
Or, if they use a magnifier, you’ll need to ensure that your text scales appropriately so that it’s not blurred or pixelated by the app or device.
If you want to test this on your own site, here’s how you can pull up your Magnifier tool:
- Windows: Hold the Windows key and the + key
- Mac: Hold the Command key and the +key
Another main demographic that you’ll need to consider are those who are colorblind.
While this demographic may still be able to partially use your site, it’s sometimes difficult for their eyes to distinguish between the background and foreground of your site. This makes it hard to navigate or read the content.
But, using a tool like WebAIM will help you check the contrast ratio of the colors on your site.
This will help ensure that they’re able to see everything on your site and use it to full capacity.
The final demographic of visually impaired patients that you’re likely to encounter are those who are fully blind.
Blind users utilize assistive devices, including screen and braille readers, to help them read the content on your webpage… elements like image alt tags and headings.
If you don’t properly label these elements in your site’s code, it can be difficult for these patients to navigate and find the information that they need.
It’s also helpful for form fields that patients fill out on your site. Required fields not tagged appropriately can lead to a frustrating experience.
NV Access is a non-profit organization based in Australia that provides a free, open-source, screen reader for the use of blind people all over the world.
Their video below shows how blind people use screen readers to browse the web, and why it’s so important for your website to be “screen-reader compatible”.
As we saw with Netflix, having videos on your site that don’t contain closed captions can put your practice in legal hot water.
Closed captions allow individuals with impaired hearing to read the content of your video, giving them equal access to the information you share.
So, you can see why it’s so important to ensure that your videos are up to the ADA’s standards and avoid disenfranchising your patients with hearing impairments.
Many disabilities can cause patients to experience trouble using a mouse, which can make it next to impossible to navigate or use your site.
Doing a keyboard test will help you see if your site is accessible via a keyboard only.
Go to your site and unplug your mouse, and then use the arrow keys, tab, and return to browse your site.
You’ll also need to ensure that users can access and fill out forms, or find resources like patient bulletins or blog posts.
If you fail any of these tests, you need to work with a developer like Accessly to ensure that keyboard-reliant visitors can use these elements.
For example, including a “Skip to Main Content” option on your site means your patients can easily skip other elements to read the main content of your page.
This streamlines your site and makes it possible for disabled patients to navigate your site as efficiently as any other patient.
Healthcare practitioners can benefit greatly from a modern website that allows them to educate patients and streamline their operation.
But if you’re going to have a website, it must be ADA and Section 1557 compliant.
Practitioners who don’t keep their site up to these standards run the risk of being slapped with some hefty fines and lawsuits.
Or worse, an inaccessible website can damage the trust your patients have in your practice, and could impair your ability to help them.
Take the steps to ensure that those with visual, hearing, or mobility disabilities can easily access and use your website.
It’s not just the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.