There was a time not too long ago that doctors lived in an analog world. They only answered questions from patients that came into their office. They prescribed medicine in person. They always did some sort of physical exam before making judgments. No longer. Doctors increasingly communicate with patients via email, appear on social networks, and write prescriptions via mobile apps. If they wanted to boost their online reputation, there’s even a place for doctors to air their medical opinions out in the open, for all patients to see: HealthTap.
The HealthTap app emerged from beta a year and 10 months ago. Since then, it has grown to a network of 35,000 physicians waiting at the ready to answer all manner of questions from millions of anxious users. The service is mostly free—any questions longer than 150 characters require a 99 cent charity donation, and a private chat with a doctor costs $9.99. For most people, though, the free service is good enough (you can find answers to pretty much any medical question you could think of already in the database). And doctors seem to be more than willing to help out, even though they receive no cash from answering free queries.
"It’s not about the money. They chose to practice medicine because they want to help," insists HealthTap founder and CEO Ron Gutman.
That’s not the whole story. HealthTap has created a rating systems for doctors, called a "Docscore," that can boost online reputation. The score takes into account the number of patients reached, reviews they receive from other doctors with high Docscores, and more. Fast Company described the Docscore system in a 2012 article:
The user interface itself is decked out in referral buttons and awards galore. Answers are accompanied by a giant "thank" button in the top right hand corner, and a doctor’s avatar is decorated like a military uniform, with their HealhTap score and expertise placed directly under their name. The doctor profile pages themselves prominently display the total number of patients they’ve reached, how many lifetime "thanks" and "agrees" they received. Like a wall of plaques in their office, the profile page prominently displays HealthTap’s own version of awards, some as silly as the "Healthcliff Huxtable award" for receiving 50 total "thanks."
Gutman points out that the service can be used by doctors to improve their career and find better jobs. As a recent New York Times article discusses, many doctors are just now figuring out how to extend their medical expertise into the online world. For some, HealthTap can help.
HealthTap continues upgrading its features—most recently, it began allowing users to tag questions with details (i.e., gender and medications taken) to give the service an even more personalized touch. But despite the addition of new features and an ever-growing user base, Gutman says the service isn’t profitable (though it does have $13.9 million in funding). "We could have been profitable if we turned on ads now, but we decided not to do it to preserve an excellent user experience and doctor experience," he says.
I suggested that HealthTap could license its service to medical practices looking for an online platform that allows them to easily answer patient questions. "We’ve been asked to do that," says Gutman. "I can’t comment exactly."
Gutman believes HealthTap will really shine when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act comes online and up to 40 million previously uninsured Americans—now able to get insurance from health insurance exchanges—start searching for doctors. "We’re going to have a shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians, and what we’re going to do then depends on our ability to use technology like HealthTap to triage these people," he says. An online question-and-answer service is not a definitive solution to the problem, but for the niggling medical questions that don’t require in-person evaluations, it’s certainly useful.