Healthline Battles WebMD with Personalized Medical Search Tools, Body Maps

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compete with WebMD, long the 800-pound gorilla of health publishing on the Web. By the time Shell, took over in 2005, the company had shrunk to just five people.

As the former CEO of e-marketing company Netcentives and mobile fleet management startup Sapias, Shell brought an understanding of both enterprise-scale software development and Internet marketing. He renamed the company, raised new capital, and decided to invest heavily in improving the taxonomy. The goal, he says, was to “understand the relations between symptoms, diseases, risk factors, complications, drugs, all those things. That way our query parsing engine can understand the meaning of a query and rank the results based on what we know the person needs, not based on a popularity contest of who’s linking to whom. You don’t want to be close in healthcare—you want to be accurate.”

But Healthline isn’t just about personalized search. In keeping with its effort to sidestep complex medical terminology, the company has made a big push in the last year to present health information visually-and not just through videos, which are abundant on the site, but through interactive graphics of the human body. “Health search has been incredibly text-based,” says Shell. “But many people learn visually better than they do through text. For us to be able to use human anatomy as a search paradigm made sense to us.”

In partnership with investor GE—which, as the world’s leading maker of medical imaging devices, has access to huge databases of CT, MRI, and X-ray data—Healthline in May introduced BodyMaps, a collection of almost 1,000 3D models that can be rotated in space. Cutaway views feature musculature, vasculature, bones, and other systems, and everything is labeled with pop-up explanations, which link in turn to detailed Healthline articles. If you’re facing knee surgery, for example, you can use BodyMaps to grok the difference between the lateral meniscus, the tibial collateral ligament, and the posterior cruciate ligament.

BodyMaps have seen “phenomenal” uptake among Healthline users, according to Shell. Visitors spend twice as long with the 3D models as they do perusing text-only pages. The company’s development roadmap includes plans for animated graphics that explain disease processes, rather than simply showing healthy bodies and tissues. “This is how people learn to be nurses and doctors—they have access to a lot of rich visuals,” Shell says. “This is the first time we’re bringing it to the consumer marketplace. I think it’s going to change the way we find health information.”

The company transforms all that information into revenue in two ways. The first is targeted advertising. Search for “arthritis,” and you’ll likely see a display ad for etanercept (Enbrel), a genetically engineered anti-inflammatory drug originally developed by Immunex and now marketed by Amgen and Pfizer.

Then there are the company’s content and licensing deals. The beauty of Healthline’s service is that the taxonomy, the symptom search tools, and the text and video content can go wherever consumers are. All of the articles and search features at Yahoo Health at are all courtesy of Healthline, for example. In fact, Shell says only about 5 million of Healthline’s 100 million monthly users actually come to the Healthline website. The rest find the information via the company’s syndication partners.

Shell says he had job offers in the music and digital-imaging sectors back in 2005, but chose Healthline because his intuition as a baby-boomer—he’s 56—told him that healthcare would be the next big industry transformed by the Internet. “Information technology is going to drive what has traditionally been a provider-centric business to become a consumer-centric business,” he says. “And as we’ve done with every other industry, the baby boomers are going to be the ones to take healthcare around the throat and change it.”

They may not get any help with that from Marcus Welby, but they’ll definitely get some from Silicon Valley.

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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