Healthline Battles WebMD with Personalized Medical Search Tools, Body Maps

“Marcus Welby is dead.”

So says West Shell, the CEO of San Francisco-based Healthline. Not that Dr. Welby was ever actually alive—the fictional physician, played by Robert Young, made house calls for ABC TV from 1969 to 1976. But Shell’s point is that few people these days have a family physician like Welby to whom they can easily turn with medical questions. These days, says West, “The doctor is your third opinion”—the first two being the Web and, you guessed it, the Web.

Shell says 170 million Americans turn to the Internet every month for help managing their health. And Healthline, the 130-employee company he’s been leading since 2005, captures a huge portion of them: roughly 100 million per month, spread across the many Web properties, such as Yahoo Health,, and, that use the company’s search tools and medical content. It’s one of the three largest U.S. providers of consumer health information on the Web, the others being WebMD and Everyday Health.

What sets Healthline apart from its competitors, according to Shell, is its focus on technology. Healthline’s core asset is a health-specific search engine programmed with a vast set of categories and definitions—a “semantic taxonomy,” to use the search industry term. The taxonomy helps consumers find the information they need, even if they don’t know the right keywords to use. To take a simple example, the Healthline taxonomy knows that “Lou Gehrig’s disease” and “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” are the same thing, or that “brittle bone disease” is technically known as “osteogenesis imperfecta.”

Healthline CEO West Shell

“Doctors speak in Latin, insurance companies speak in billing codes, and patients speak in English,” says Shell. “These terminologies are incredibly difficult. But at the end of the day, the reason we beat Google and Microsoft and Yahoo in terms of being able to search health information and deliver it is that it’s the most complex information retrieval problem there is. Over half of the staff here are engineers, medical informatics specialists, doctors, pharmacologists, and nurses. That’s our unfair advantage.”

Much of the information available on Healthline is written by the company’s own researchers and contract writers. But it’s also a rich source of articles and videos syndicated from other sources around the Web, such as 5min, a library of instructional videos owned by AOL. Healthline also offers one of the Internet’s most comprehensive symptom search services. If you’re suffering from, say, excessive yawning, Healthline will give you a long list of potential causes, from insomnia to sleep apnea to a heart attack, and share information on potential cures and costs, as well as leads on local doctors who specialize in treating these conditions.

Healthline has raised about $50 million since 2005 from VantagePoint Venture Partners, Investor Growth Capital, and a group of strategic investors including General Electric, Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, US News, and Reed Elsevier. It’s looking like those backers made a good bet. The company’s business is growing at a rate of 50 percent per year, according to Shell. This fall, Healthline ranked 75th on Deloitte’s list of the 500 fastest-growing technology companies in North America.

That’s a remarkable turnaround for a dot-com era company that nearly disappeared from existence in the mid-2000s. Originally known as, the site was created in 1999 by James Norman, M.D., an endocrine specialist and Internet health education pioneer. built the foundations of a semantic taxonomy for health, but after the bust, the startup just couldn’t … Next Page »

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

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3 responses to “Healthline Battles WebMD with Personalized Medical Search Tools, Body Maps”

  1. Charles W. Wilson says:

    I have a daughter with ADD but she has a processing problem. We are taking medicine for ADD but cannot find a way to address the processing problem. She does not drive (no license). She is 25 and has been through 2 drivers education courses. I do not believe that she or anyone on the road is safe with her behind the whee. Is there a doctor that works with these kind of problems?

  2. Tim says:

    I developed allergies and exercised induced asthema a few years ago. Doctors are treating my allergies which is fine. I am having a terrible time with drainage from a small sinus in the back of my throat, draining causing coughing and constantly clearing my throat, especially at night. For the past 10 days, it has kept me awake most of the night, kicking my rear. I’m looking for suggestions or comments from others who have had issues with their sphinknoid (pardon my spelling) sinus causing similar symptoms. I am physically active, and is driving me crazy. Any help out there? Tim