HealthTap Positions Itself for Rush of Obamacare Patients in 2014

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either or both may be using HealthTap from the small screens of their smartphones. “It’s not replacing a doctor visit, but it’s giving you an item of information you need to understand your health better and do the next thing, such as choosing a physician,” Gutman says.

In the spirit of transparency, the site lets users see not just the names of the answering physicians, but their location, areas of expertise, and the number of kudos they’ve received for participating in HealthTap’s community. Users can also see who’s in the doctor’s referral network—-the other doctors to whom they refer their patients most often. And every physician also gets a “DocScore,” similar to a FICO score or a Google rank, based on their career accomplishments and the scores of the doctors who refer to them. It’s all intended to help patients assess the credibility of the answers and find physicians who might be able to help with their specific problems.

To facilitate that, there’s a button on each doctor’s page leading to an appointment request form. But Gutman notes that the average wait for an appointment with a physician in the U.S. is 20 days. And that’s the difficulty that the startup originally set out to address.

HealthTap on the Web

HealthTap on the Web

There’s no reason someone should have to wait that long for an answer to a simple medical question, Gutman argues. At HealthTap, “The whole promise is to create immediate access to the best physicians and their information,” he says.

To make it all work, though, the startup had to give physicians a reason to spend their time answering questions. It came up with several. For one thing, the system uses game mechanics such as votes, medals, trophies, and thank-yous to “bring fun back to the practice of medicine—this whole notion that you can interact with patients and actually enjoy it,” Gutman says.

At the same time, doctors use HealthTap’s maps and DocScore system to build their own referral networks. And using another recently added feature called “curbside consults,” doctors can ask each other questions privately.

Most of HealthTap’s features, including the referral network maps, got their start in the form of suggestions from doctors, which was key to the company’s early growth, Gutman says. “The secret sauce was that we gave them a voice. They love that we take their ideas and incorporate them into the product. It made them turn around and invite other doctors. They’d say ‘These guys really mean it. There is somebody who actually listens to us.’”

HealthTap’s network of 34,000 doctors represents about 6 percent of all U.S. physicians. That’s a lot, for such a young startup. Then again, it will take a lot of work to reach the other 94 percent.

At the same time, the company aims to expand is base of consumer users, which is now in the single-digit millions, to “more than 100 million,” Gutman says. “At the end of the day we want to be the number one player in how patients connect with doctors.”

The more users HealthTap can line up in 2013, the more leverage it will have when the new health insurance exchanges go into operation next year. Which brings us back to HealthTap’s business model.

“What will happen with Obamacare is exactly what happened with Y2K, but with substance this time,” Gutman predicts. “Three or four months before these 30 or 40 million Americans flood the healthcare system, people will wake up and say ‘Oh my god, this is going to happen and nothing is going to stop it.’ They will need to do something, and they will resort to technology.”

With so many new people using medical services, Gutman thinks, there will be a scramble inside physician practices and hospitals to cut costs. If you look at the nation’s total medical bills, office visits represent one of the biggest line items—some $487 billion a year. But at least 25 percent of the patients who show up doctor’s offices could have gotten their questions answered without actually seeing a physician, Gutman says.

So here’s his math. If the 25 percent figure is correct, then unnecessary office visits currently cost the nation more than $120 billion a year. Using a premium version of an electronic system like HealthTap, Gutman thinks, health systems might be able 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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