In fact, a Pew Research study released earlier this year said that searches about health topics are ranked the third most popular online activity, behind email and general Web searches.
Startup vendor Medify is publicly launching Tuesday an online database and social media site that aims to make health-related searches more relevant, personalized, and actionable. Medify dives into millions of medical research studies and other literature, presenting individuals with organized findings about conditions, treatments, and comparisons with other similar patients.
The goal is to provide individuals with complex information and health insights that have been vetted by medical researchers, presented in interactive and graphical formats so that the material is easier to understand and act on, said Derek Streat, Medify co-founder and CEO in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
[Despite deep consumer interest in health topics, most people don't seem to be interested in tracking their own health data online. What should the industry do? See How To Fix The Personal Health Record Mess.]
Medify has created a database based on medical research that Medify "ingests and cleans up" every night from Medline, the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine database of bibliographic database, which contains over 18 million references to medical and life science journal articles and studies.
The Medify database also includes information from other sources, including drug side effect material from the Food and Drug Administration, Streat said. Eventually, the company plans to" ingest" medical claims and perhaps e-health record data to expand queries about the costs and outcomes of frequenltly prescribed treatments, said Streat.
The size of the Medify database is just under 1 terabyte when all the data is aggregated, he said. The data includes "billions of facts about hundreds of millions of real patient experiences across millions of studies," he said.
Medify focuses on "abstracts" of research studies found in Medline and elsewhere.
"That helps provide answers to basic questions like who are the experts in key medical fields, treatment options, side effects" and other information that can help individuals take action in exploring care, as well as provide insights into emerging medical innovations and the typical course of a disease as experienced by similar patients.
That could include helping individuals locate information about suitable clinical trials that are underway.
Currently, Medify contains data for about 6,000 conditions, ranging "from the common cold to rare leukemias and everything else in-between," said Streat.
That includes information about "rare, longtail conditions" that can take years to develop after an injury or exposure to a harmful chemical, such as brain concussions or contact with asbestos.
"Some of those situations are scary because they're rare and not a lot is known about them," he said. "We believe that those murky conditions affect 30 million to 50 million people in the U.S.," he said.
In fact it was his then-two-year-old daughter's diagnosis a couple of years ago of a rare autoimmune disorder that was the impetus for Streat launching Medify, he said.
With Medify, which is free to users, individuals can type in a condition, treatment, or medical institution, and see the total number of patients across all studies who have been followed with that condition; lists of the top 5 studied treatments ranked by number of patients studied; top 5 institutions studying these patients; and top 5 research topics that are gaining recent attention.
Medify also allows users to choose how their search results are presented graphically, such as in lists, bar graphs, or bubble charts. For instance, in bubble chart mode, each bubble represents a group of like patients assembled from studies. The larger a bubble, the greater the number of patients. The higher a bubble is on the chart, the more medical evidence there is about that group of patients.
Medify social media and discussion tools allow users to share their search result findings with others, as well as discuss their experiences in private circles or connect easily to share more broadly via Gmail or Facebook.
While the service is free to consumers, Medify's business model allows individuals to give their permission to have pharmaceutical, healthcare services, or research organizations provide information to them that's geared to the patient's situation. For instance, if a multiple sclerosis patient is searching for information about treatment options, a pharmaceutical company developing a new drug could offer to provide the patient with information about an upcoming clinical trial.
"About a half-billion dollars is spent on recruiting patients for trials, but less than 5% of patients are found," said Streat.
Medify has financial backing from Voyager Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.