enables consumers to ask physicians medical questions for free, claims it has signed up more than 5,000 doctors in 82 specialties just six months after launching a beta test with ob/gyns and pediatricians. The company has also just introduced HealthTap Express for mobile devices, including iPhones and Android smartphones.
HealthTap distinguishes itself from other health education websites by having practicing physicians answer the consumers' questions. Depending on how much information a user chooses to enter about his or her age, gender, and health condition in a HealthTap form, the reply can be specifically tailored to that person.
The HealthTap website specifically states that the service does not offer medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman told InformationWeek Healthcare that this remains true even when a consumer enters information about his or her health status. So in his view, participating physicians are not increasing their malpractice liability risk.
[ Legally, EHRs are double-edged swords: They protect clinicians from malpractice litigation but also put them at greater risk. See Will Your EHR Land You In Court? ]
"There's a difference between the administration of care and general information," he noted. The doctors' replies to questions are limited to 400 characters, so the patient has to visit a physician to find out more, he said.
Moreover, he said, each question is sent to multiple physicians in the pertinent specialty, and the consumer who submitted it receives multiple answers. The answers are stored in a database, and when another person asks an identical question, he or she can see the responses that have been provided to date.
"We want to make sure all our physicians are not practicing medicine online and not furnishing advice, but that they're providing education. And the relationship is not one to one, it's one to many. The question asked by a certain individual goes to the entire pool of physicians, and the answer goes to the entire pool of patients for education purposes, and not to a particular patient."
HealthTap offers an "agree" button to its physicians so that they can show whether or not they agree with what a particular doctor has written. Patients see the results, which aid them in deciding which physicians know what they're talking about.
Local physicians receive notifications when a patient in their area asks questions pertinent to their specialty. If one of these doctors answers a query, and the patient who asked it likes the doctor's approach to medicine, he or she might make an appointment with that practitioner. "Our ambition is to have physicians in every zip code so that patients can not only get the free answer but also visit physicians in their area," Gutman said.
Besides attracting new business, physicians who participate in HealthTap can also enhance their reputation online without running the legal risks of using social media such as Twitter or Facebook, Gutman stated. And they can improve their relationships with existing patients by storing all of their answers to commonly asked questions on a "virtual practice" site to which they can refer patients. "That saves them time during the visit, and it helps them retain their existing patients," he pointed out.
While social networking is not the primary aim of HealthTap, the company does offer some features of a social media site. For example, consumers can "follow" the responses of particular experts or receive all answers on particular subjects. And they can also share health information online with other HealthTap users.
Gutman admitted that HealthTap's business model is a little fuzzy. "We're not making money yet. We're focused on creating a product and increasing distribution. We're fortunate that our investors know that in the initial stage, focus matters."
Eventually, he said, the company will charge for some premium services related to the "virtualization" of health care. "Some of the things that are done in the patient visit can be done virtually. Down the road there will be opportunities to take some care processes that don't have to done in the patient visit and do it in the cloud."
But he insisted, "We're committed to keeping the basic service free. We have an important social mission here."