HealthTap's growth validates hypotheses about doctors and patients

A major round of funding for HealthTap gave me the opportunity to talk again with founder Ron Gutman, whom I interviewed earlier this year. You can get an overview of HealthTap from that posting or from its own web site. Essentially, HealthTap is a portal for doctors to offer information to patients and potential patients. In this digital age, HealthTap asks, why should a patient have to make an appointment and drive to the clinic just to find out whether her symptoms are probably caused by a recent medication? And why should a doctor repeat the same advice for each patient when the patient can go online for it?

Now, with 6,000 participating physicians and 500 participating health care institutions, HealthTap has revealed two interesting and perhaps unexpected traits about doctors:

  • Doctors will take the time to post information online for free. Many observations, including my own earlier posting, questioned whether they’d take the time to do this. The benefits of posting information is that doctors can demonstrate their expertise, win new patients, and cut down on time spent answering minor questions.

  • Doctors are willing to rate each other. This can be a surprise in a field known for its reluctance to break ranks and doctors’ famous unwillingness to testify in malpractice lawsuits. But doctors do make use of the “Agree” button that HealthTap provides to approve postings by other doctors. When they press this button, they add the approved posting to their own web page (Virtual Practice), thus offering useful information to their own patients and others who can find them through search engines and social networks. The “Agree” ratings also cause postings to turn up higher when patients search for information on HealthTap, and help create a “Trust Score” for the doctor.

HealthTap, Gutman assures me, is not meant to replace doctors’ visits, although online chats and other services in the future may allow patients to consult with doctors online. The goals of HealthTap remain to the routine provision of information that’s easy for doctors to provide online, and to make medicine more transparent so patients know their doctors, before treatment and throughout their relationships.

HealthTap has leapt to a new stage with substantial backing from Tim Chang (managing director of Mayfield Fund), Eric Schmidt (through his Innovation Endeavors) and Rowan Chapman (Mohr Davidow Ventures). These VCs provide HealthTap with the funds to bring on board the developers, as well as key product and business development hires, required to scale up its growing operations. These investors also lend the business the expertise of some of the leaders in the health IT industry.

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  • HealthTap, Avvo and Sharecare (maybe) serve to fill a significant need — enable a person to obtain (hopefully) reasonable counsel or advice on a medical issue.

    As you pointed out, and as I have mentioned on many occasion throughout my blog, physicians are not nearly as “afraid” of being online — as they simply lack tactical or practical guidance on how to establish a meaningful digital presence.

    In my opinion, sites like HealthTap can be doing so much more, with little back-end tweaking to broaden their value propositions to physicians and enhance engagement, sharing, education and perhaps even collaboration…. I trust and hope they will use their funding wisely.

  • HealthTap’s proposition is simple but it was not entirely evident as to whether it would attract the type of attention warranted from reliable medical sources to become a useful destination. As Howard suggests, this still remains to be seen.

    However, the two factors outlined in this article are instructive in terms of what could be expected from a final version of HealthTap and other similar platforms.

    If indeed MDs are willing to share (with patients) and rate (other doctors) then we have the makings of a truly revolutionary premise in medical information online.

    Currently, a person searching for medical information online is faced by three major problems with the most widely available sources:

    Pubmed (and similar sites : Are overly technical, geared towards professionals and (in many cases) end a specific inquiry to an often exhorbitantly priced information paywall.

    Wikipedia Offers a broad range of information with (surprisingly good) quality however, the expertise and/or agenda by the person posting cannot always be readily discerned.

    Online Health Forums : Offer a broad range of very useful information from people with intimate experience in the subject matter. The voluntary nature of a forum encourages sharing of information and over time these can become comprehensive sources of information from the perspective of a patient. Unfortunately, over time, most forums can become places where argument is more common than discussion and where the loudest voices often take over other opinions. Robert Scoble wrote about some of these problems in a 2009 blog post that many now simply refer to as “the forum problem”

    HealthTap (in theory) is a solution to each of these problems. The degree to which doctors will continue to engage will determine it’s ultimate success of failure. IMHO.

  • Vaughan D. Hall, M.D.

    HealthTap is an interesting concept but I have seen several similar efforts come and go over the past decade. At first, doctors find it interesting to participate but gradually lose interest in providing their opinions (really the only commodity that non-procedurally based physicians have to offer their patients anyway) for free. Eventually, one starts to wonder if the physicians that have to time to respond are those that aren’t very busy and if their lack of business reflects their level of competence. Finally, most interested physicians have participated and then dropped out and the site loses critical mass. Maybe this will be different, but history is not promising.

  • Sean Baskin, MS1

    Healthtap also provides an excellent opportunity to medical students to apply their knowledge to real patients. As a medical student contributor, I am able to answer questions, which often requires minimal research (confirming symptoms, demographics, medication side effects), and then submit my responses for validation by a physician. Not only does this afford me the opportunity to build and utilize my medical knowledge, but helps me to further my ability to communicate effectively with patients. I am finding this to be an invaluable experience that has not only allowed me to play a role in bettering the health and understanding of those who post questions, but has allowed me to network with other students and physicians around the country!