HealthTap has done just that. The mobile healthcare technology company has assembled a network of more than 50,000 physicians across the globe and planted their services into a free mobile app (free to download and to use). Patients log into the system, type in a question and receive an answer within a few hours, all at no charge.
So how is this all free? What's the catch?
"We have big investors," HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman said. "Eventually we will commercialize. For now, we're focused on growing the user base. We're subscribing to the Silicon Valley model that says first build a great product, then grow the user base, then monetize."
[ Looking to get your patients more involved in their own care? See Patient Engagement: How To Do It Right. ]
HealthTap is free to sign up for and free to download. It has no advertisements. Inside the app, almost all of its services and features can be accessed for free, but there are charges for deeper engagement with doctors and quicker service: To ask a specific doctor a follow-up question costs $9.99; to get an expedited answer to a question costs 99 cents; and to ask a question longer than 150 characters costs 99 cents.
The app isn't meant to replace doctors' visits, but rather to facilitate communication between those visits. It started out as an app serving pregnant women and new moms and has grown to include 137 specialties.
If anything, HealthTap raises awareness about the digital health options available to consumers, helping to increase patient engagement and produce better outcomes.
The app is free, and that's unusual considering its network's scope. But there are limitations -- doctors participate for free, answering questions about things like medication side effects, sleeping troubles and weight loss challenges. They can't prescribe medications or order tests, and there's no way to send pictures or video, which Gutman said may be available at a future date.
HealthTap is also rolling out TalkToDocs, a voice-controlled iteration of its original app that allows patients to dictate their questions instead of typing them.
"Right now you have WebMD, CVS Minute Clinics, doctor's visits and emergency rooms," said Paul Sonnier, co-head of digital strategy at Popper and Co., a healthcare consulting firm. "HealthTap fits into a segment where it's really empowering consumers and taking advantage of the digital revolution. We all look to the Internet to solve our problems immediately. In that regard, they've very precisely identified this need and fulfilled it."