HHS center shines in public education role

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For the Department of Health and Human Services' National Women's Health Information Center, supplying the public with up-to-date health data is paramount.

When the center was established in 1994, "women had no single place to turn for comprehensive information about the illnesses that affected them or ways...they could protect their health," said Valerie Scardino, the center's program manager.

The Web site and call center, launched four years later, have gone a long way toward remedying that situation while attracting a growing number of users and critical praise. It was initially conceived as a pure gateway service, providing a catalog of women's health information drawn from government and private sources, Scardino said.

Over time, however, the center began generating content to fill information gaps. That content is exemplified in the "Frequently Asked Questions About Women's Health" section, the site's most popular feature, according to Scardino.

Traffic increases provide one measure of the site's success. It attracts 550,000 visitors per month, about 15,000 more than during the same time last year, she said. The center also receives about 4,300 telephone calls and 300 e-mail messages per month.

Another measure of success came in September, when the site scored the highest grade of all government sites in the first quarterly installment of the E-Government Satisfaction Index from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. ASCI is produced by a partnership of the University of Michigan Business School, the American Society for Quality, the CFI Group and ForeSee Results Inc.

The site achieved a score of 83 out of 100, putting it on a par with premier commercial sites.

In many ways, the center has built a system that combines the best of both worlds, offering user-friendly navigation common to commercial sites with credibility that comes with government sponsorship, said Larry Freed, chief executive officer and president of ForeSee Results.

Center officials built the Web site and call center using off-the-shelf technology, which provides scalability and adaptability to support future development.

The call center uses Toshiba America Inc. equipment and software to run its Automatic Call Distribution system. The Web site is hosted on Dell Inc. servers running Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000. The Web server application is based on Microsoft Internet Information Services Web server software and Front Page Server Extensions, plus Macromedia Inc.'s ColdFusion application server software. The databases are hosted on a separate server running Microsoft SQL Server.

Since its inception, change has been a constant for the center.

The home page has undergone two major revisions, and various databases have been deployed on a single database server and tightly integrated with one another. Now when agents take a call, they "can access all publication and organization referrals from the call-tracking screen and select materials for the caller in the same system," Scardino said.

The center is using the index's results to craft a survey for Web site users. In early 2004, it will begin a similar survey of call-center users.

The center also will have a new job this winter, when it begins to provide information about breastfeeding as part of a national Ad Council campaign, Scardino said. This will mark the first time that the center will provide health information directly to callers, as opposed to referring them elsewhere.

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