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 release a native app. “The team background is from mobile apps and games, so this will be the core focus going forward,” Tulla says.

BetterDoctor populates its backend database with data from insurance companies, consumer review sites, medical licensing boards, and the like. The company collects data from 40 to 50 sources altogether, Tulla says. But just as important, Tulla and Tolvanen have focused on building a simple, attractive, easy-to-use search interface that worked equally well on desktop and mobile platforms. “Some people say simple is boring, but I think simple is hard,” Tulla says. “We want to make sure you can find some value in two clicks—what kind of doctor, what insurance plans, and the quality metrics.”

Once a patient has found a doctor they might like on BetterDoctor, the next step is to contact their office and ask about available appointments. That’s the part BetterDoctor can’t really help with yet—right now the site merely shows a doctor’s office phone number.

“In the end our goal is to have the doctors define their availability on a practice level or even an individual level, but it’s a complex problem,” Tulla says. For one thing, there are hundreds of competing electronic booking and health record systems. Automating the connections—so that patients could book appointments directly through BetterDoctor’s site—would mean integrating with all of them.

A search results page on BetterDoctor

A search results page on BetterDoctor

Government incentives encouraging practices to adopt electronic systems will help with this, but standardization is still a long way off, Tulla says. “You don’t want to wait until the world is perfect. You want to build something that will work while the world is becoming perfect.” Meanwhile, a “fairly high number of people” already proceed all the way from doing a search to booking an appointment by phone, he says.

BetterDoctor has raised $650,000 in seed funding so far from individual investors, including a number of doctors. “Tens of thousands of active consumers” signed up for the Bay Area beta test, which listed 5,000 local doctors. And a handful of doctors are using what Tulla calls the “Doctor Dashboard,” where doctors or practices can add information directly to the company’s database. The company hopes to increase the number of doctors who are engaging directly with the database over time.

And it may eventually start charging practices for the new patients it sends their way. “We believe that the best model from the doctor and consumer perspective is to focus on lead generation,” Tulla says. The alternative—plastering the site with advertising—could decrease trust in the service, he says.

The day doesn’t seem very far away when the mobile and desktop Web will be the main place people turn to look for a doctor. “Twenty percent of couples met each other on the Web,” Tulla points out. “If that’s possible, then it should also be possible for you to meet a doctor.” The question is who the matchmakers will be—and while many other sites offer physician listings, Tulla hopes BetterDoctor’s will become the most detailed and trusted.

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!