Imagine that you have a terrible cough. Your nose is runny, you’re running a mild fever, and your throat feels a little constricted. What do you do? Call your mother? Contact a medical professional? Drop by your local clinic? If you’re anything like the average American adult, the first thing you would do is go online to research symptoms.

Although the Internet has long been the go-to source for health and wellness information, most hospitals are notably absent in the online arena, often treating the web as an afterthought to traditional media. Here are seven key statistics that suggest that a smart web presence is more important than ever for every hospital and health system:

1. Online searches for health information is the third most popular online activity.

The top two most popular online activities are email and utilizing search engines—which means health information is the single most searched topic on the web. People spend more time searching about health topics than they do on e-commerce, Facebook, or YouTube. Take advantage of this by reaching an audience unprecedented in scale and scope.

2. 80% of American Web users look online for health information.

That’s nearly 200,000,000 people, and roughly 60% of the U.S. population overall. Without a strong Internet presence, you’re neglecting a vital opportunity to reach three out of every five adults in an efficient and relatively inexpensive medium. Maximize your marketing dollars by making sure that you’re reaching your audience online.

3. 66% of American web users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem.

That’s approximately 160,000,000 people who are, at any given time, looking up specific symptoms, conditions and diseases. This is a golden opportunity to leverage your medical specialties through smart search engine optimization and well-targeted ads. Become an online authority in your fields of expertise, reaching potentially millions of people outside of your geographic service area in the process.

4. 56% of American web users look online for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure.

Similar to the above statistic, the specificity of this topic is a boon to good search engine marketers. Use this opportunity to push your service lines by becoming an authoritative voice on the matter. Whether it’s cardiac or ortho or cancer treatment, clever and persistent SEO can push you to the top of the listings, lending your organization instant trust and credibility.

5. 44% of American web users look online for information about doctors or other health professionals.

People have more choices than ever before, and they’re increasingly turning to the web to help them make decisions. Nearly half your audience is getting to know your doctors well before they ever step into an office or a hospital. Because first impressions are so important, it’s vital that your organization puts its best foot forward. Make sure that your staff is easy to find and research online. Use this opportunity to give your hospital a human face and to differentiate yourself from the competition. After all, while every hospital can offer the same services, they can’t all offer the same skilled surgeons and staff.

6. Each week on Facebook, more than 3.5 billion pieces of content are shared.

Although much of this content consists of personal status updates, consider that 60% of this content consists of reviews shared among trusted friends and peers. Also consider that four out of ten consumers use social media to find reviews of doctors and treatments, and one in three post about their healthcare experiences using social networking tools. This opportunity can be both fruitful and dangerous, but carefully treading these waters can lead to more patients in your service area, as positive word-of-mouth spreads.

7. Americans spend three times as much time on social media as on email.

More and more people are getting their information from social media, but social media can provide you with a plethora of information that was previously difficult to garner—including what your audience likes, what they need, how they behave and when to respond to negative or positive experiences. This is the future, now: more than 80% of people between the ages of 18 to 24 are likely to use social media to share personal health information. 45% said that the information they received through social media could decide whether they would look for a second opinion. Any hospital without a strong social media presence will be at an immediate disadvantage to their better-prepared and networked competitors.

No hospital or health organization can afford to treat online and social media as separate from a traditional business and marketing strategy. In order to draw in more patients, you must connect with them wherever they might live, work or play—and that means seamlessly integrating online media and social networking tools into your marketing arsenal.

How have you integrated online media and social networking tools into your marketing efforts? How effective have they been for you? Let us know in the comments.