HealthTap Seeks to Arm Healthcare Consumers with Better Answers, and Better Questions, Before They Go to the Doctor

When is too much information worse than none at all? When it comes to health advice on the Internet, apparently. Databases like PubMed, health-oriented social networking sites such as PatientsLikeMe, and consumer sites like WebMD, HealthCentral, and RevolutionHealth offer an enormous flood of data about diseases, symptoms, and treatments. Yet according to a study last year from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 60 percent of healthy adults feel that they get either minor help or no help when they search for health information online. The percentages are even worse among adults with chronic health conditions—67 percent say the Internet offers minor help or no help.

Ron Gutman, a serial health entrepreneur based in Palo Alto, CA, thinks he knows what the problem is. He says the previous generation of health websites fails to help most visitors because they aren’t personalized. (Gutman’s last startup, Wellsphere, was purchased by HealthCentral in 2009.) “Ten people can go to Google or Wellsphere, and they’re all very different—one is old, one is young, one is a woman, one is a man, one might have cancer, one might be healthy—and if they all ask the same question they are all going to get the same results,” Gutman says. “Which doesn’t make any sense. Although there is an overwhelming amount of information, it is never personalized to them, so they just get more confused.”

Gutman is trying to bridge the personalization gap with his latest venture, HealthTap. Opened to public beta testing today, the site is built around a massive tree of increasingly specific questions about users’ symptoms. As visitors answers more questions, they’re ultimately guided to potential diagnoses and relevant health tips authored by the site’s network of physician contributors. To increase the accuracy of the system, users can also upload information about their age, gender, allergies, medications, and other health conditions. All of this information remains private, and can be removed at any time.

The idea behind HealthTap isn’t to help visitors self-diagnose that ache in their side or that lump under their skin, Gutman emphasizes—it’s simply to help connect them with trusted physicians and prepare them to ask smarter questions when they get to the doctor’s office. “We are not building technology to replace physicians, but to empower patients to find information in collaboration with physicians,” says the CEO. In fact, a big part of the site is devoted to Facebook-like profiles for individual physicians, who can answer questions and upload short health tips. Users can contact doctors directly through the site, and doctors can refer patients to their pages on the site for supplemental information—which turns HealthTap into a combination lead-generation engine and pamphlet counter for medical practices. In an essay for Forbes, published yesterday, Gutman calls the site a harbinger of a new era of “interactive health.”

At launch, HealthTap’s resources are geared toward a very specific population: pregnant women and moms with infant children. The extensive question-and-answer trees that the company has prepared—which help users zero in on specific health concerns by asking them the same types of questions a doctor might—pertain entirely to pregnancy and the first year of life, and most of the 550 physicians the company has recruited to answer health questions are obstetricians, gynecologists, and pediatricians. So if you’re not pregnant, nursing, or under 1 year old, you probably won’t get much out of the site until it expands to cover other groups and conditions. (Gutman says it’s a huge task to recruit physicians and to convert state-of-the art medical knowledge from peer-reviewed research papers into the decision trees. Basically, if the startup had tried from the outset to cover every health problem imaginable, it would never have launched.)

There’s a lot to explore in the HealthTap site. For a quick overview, I recommend watching this short video walk-through of the site, which I recorded last week with Gutman. (Article continues after video.)

In three separate interviews with Gutman, I’ve gotten a pretty good look inside HealthTap, and I think the company can justifiably claim, as it does in the announcement today, that it has built “the first interactive expert health companion.” By using Hunch-style decision trees to interrogate users about their symptoms, the site really does help users figure out—in a way that a general reference site would be hard-pressed to do—whether they should be complacent or alarmed about a given problem. In the example in the video, the system is able to help a hypothetical questioner—who’s assumed to be 18 weeks pregnant—figure out that her mild fever, combined with tenderness in the side, might be a sign of kidney infection, a serious complication of pregnancy that usually requires hospitalization and/or treatment with antibiotics.

This approach frees users from having to know a lot of medical terminology before they can even ask the right question about their symptoms. “My wife is a doctor, and I come from a family of physicians, and we understand each other really well, but the problem is that most people don’t grow up with the lingo,” says Gutman. “We are not educated to speak ‘health’ and when we start encountering problems, we are not equipped to engage, so we make a ton of mistakes.”

Gutman says the HealthTap team constructed the question trees by distilling the latest published research, trawling the Web to see what kinds of questions people ask about pregnancy and infancy, and getting feedback from beta testers—including pregnant women and new moms as well as physicians. By the time a user is done answering questions about her current issue, the site has a pretty good picture of her situation—and there’s a summary printout function that lets users take this information with them to the doctor’s office.

The benefit here is that doctors—who are paid by the visit, and therefore must minimize their time with each patient—don’t have to waste time going over the same information the patient already explored and documented in their encounter with HealthTap. “We are helping doctors spend more of the time on you,” says Gutman. “It saves time during the visit, and gives better quality of care.”

HealthTap has some high-profile backers who evidently buy into Gutman’s vision. They include individual investors like Aaron Patzer—who’s also focused on personalization as founder of, and now as leader of Intuit’s personal finance group—-as well as Esther Dyson and former Veritas CEO Mark Leslie. These angels teamed up last month with Menlo Park, CA-based Mohr Davidow Ventures to issue HealthTap $2.35 million in convertible-note financing. It’s not clear yet how HealthTap intends to generate revenue, though Gutman is adamant that he doesn’t want to gunk up the site with display ads pushing name-brand drugs. Such ads are the mainstay of WebMD, HealthCentral, and other consumer health sites.

“We are extremely blessed to have investors who understand what it means to build products that change the game, and how it important it is to build, first, a very robust product that serves people,” Gutman says. “We are spending literally 98 percent of our time on how to make this product really useful. We haven’t dug deep into the business model, but whatever we do, it will be 100 percent transparent to the user and will align the business interests with their personal interests.”

Gutman feels that if HealthTap can make the time doctors and patients spend together more productive, while also making doctors’ wisdom more available to patients outside the office and making Internet-based medical advice more relevant, it could go a long way toward fixing what ails the U.S. healthcare system. “That fact is that these things are so broken today—they just don’t work well,” he says. “What makes Silicon Valley so special is that it looks to these big challenges. Just solving a small problem is not going to get my team excited.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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