BetterDoctor’s Ad-Free Physician Search Tool Goes Nationwide

Every year, 70 million people in the United States set out to find a new doctor. It may be because they’ve moved or switched jobs (and hence insurers), or because they’ve gotten married or divorced or had a new child, or because they have a health problem requiring a specialist. But whatever the impetus, a large number of them fail—in part because it’s such a pain to find useful data about which doctor to choose, and which ones have openings.

That’s the pain BetterDoctor wants to treat.

Co-founded by a pair of Finns, Ari Tulla and Tapio Tolvanen, the San Francisco startup launched its doctor-search site nationwide this Monday, after several months of beta testing in the Bay Area. It’s a Web and mobile service where consumers seeking doctors can find lists of professionals filtered by location, specialty, and insurance plan. So far the service lists 600,000 doctors around the country, including general practitioners, pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologist, dentists, and optometrists.

According to Tulla (pictured above right), there are studies showing that people who have a long-term connection to a primary care physician they like are happier and healthier. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that most health plans offer such inadequate tools for finding the right doctor. “The insurance companies hardly offer any metrics that make the decision easier,” says Tulla. “It’s often just a list in alphabetical order. But the doctors whose names start with A aren’t better than the doctors who start with P.”

Better Doctor Mobile Web Screens

Better Doctor's mobile Web app

By contrast, every doctor listed at BetterDoctor comes with consumer ratings from Yelp. There’s also data about their educational credentials and their hospital affiliations, and every doctor has been vetted to make sure they have an active medical license and that they aren’t the target of an unusual number of malpractice suits or disciplinary actions.

Crucially, there’s also information about which insurance plans each doctor accepts. And doctors can’t pay to be included in the database, as they can at other sites such as ZocDoc and 1-800-Dental—the listings are invitation-only, based on which doctors meet the startup’s criteria.

“The biggest need is not just to be able to find any doctor, but to be able to find a good quality doctor nearby,” Tulla says. “We identified four different points that are the problem. Medical need—what’s wrong with me and what kind of doctor do I need? How do I pay? Quality—what good doctors are out there? And availability—are they taking new patients? Nobody else, in my mind, is putting those data points together in a meaningful way, but those are the data points you need every time you make a decision to find a doctor.”

To be fair, BetterDoctor’s directory doesn’t actually include information about availability yet, which would necessitate interfacing with many different types of patient record systems, but Tulla says that’s high on the priority list. Also, there are other plenty of existing sites such as HealthGrades and Vitals where consumers can get lists of doctors sorted by location and specialty, and find out which insurance plan each doctor accepts. What makes BetterDoctor different, Tulla says, is that it lets users start a search with a specific criterion such as insurance in mind. “In HealthGrades you can see a list of insurance [plans] for a specific doctor, but it’s not possible to find a list of doctors who accept your plan,” he says. “Studies tell us that 75 percent of consumers say that the primary selection criteria when looking for a doctor is insurance plan.”

And unlike HealthGrades or Vitals, BetterDoctor doesn’t take ads, which “reduce consumer credibility,” according to Tulla. He’s also particularly proud of the work the startup has done to make the search service work well on mobile devices. It’s a “superior, modern user experience,” he says.

So how did two Finnish natives—both longtime employees of Nokia before they struck out on their own as entrepreneurs—end up building a service to help fix problems in the U.S. healthcare system?

“For me, it’s almost a personal vendetta,” says Tulla. “It started as a pain point that I had with my family. It was really difficult to find a doctor for some medical issues that we have had in the family. I started to look at this space and decided there was something a new product could do to make it simpler.”

Before BetterDoctor, Tulla had spent about six years at Nokia offices in Finland and Silicon Valley, working on mobile games as well as a platform for turning Web content into Nokia-compatible mobile applications. He ended up contributing to over 10,000 apps. Tolvanen worked on MeeGo, the Linux-based mobile operating system that, at one time, Nokia and Intel hoped would compete with Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.

After Nokia allied with Microsoft and abandoned the MeeGo project in favor of Windows Phone, “there was a good reason for both of us to do something different,” Tulla says. It was clear, though, that it would be something mobile. While BetterDoctor’s first incarnation this spring was as a website, the startup published a mobile Web app in July and is about to … 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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4 responses to “BetterDoctor’s Ad-Free Physician Search Tool Goes Nationwide”

  1. Guest says:

    In one sentence you say there are 600,000 doctor listings on the site. Then you say the listings are invitation-only. Honestly, how much curation can be involved when they start out including 600,000 doctors?

  2. Ari Tulla says:

    BetterDoctor offers a directory of doctors who pass basic threshold of quality. Only the doctor who are fully verified and have a BetterDoctor badge are invited to the platform. There is already a good amount of curation involved as there are 1.3M doctors alltogether in the US.

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  4. John says: also provides the ability for patients to find a doctor. Every MD in the United States has a mobile friendly website at – i.e. Check it out!