screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-4-55-21-pmWhen Hurricane Matthew hit the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in October, the United Nations issued a call for aid. HealthTap, which bills itself as the world’s first global health practice, stepped up. The company offered free assistance to about 78,000 hurricane victims in the U.S., Haiti, and other Caribbean countries affected by the storm. HealthTap says about 100 of the 100,000 U.S.-licensed physicians on its platform participated.
HealthTap gives patients and consumers access to doctors through video, voice, and text chat on any mobile device or personal computer. It provides a platform for a community of physicians to share knowledge among themselves and ask questions about difficult cases. And it recently launched a cloud system that seeks to provide easier access to infrastructure, content, data, and digital services so both large and small software developers can build medical apps on top of its systems. HealthTap sells its services to health networks like hospital chains and clinics, large employers who aim to reduce costs and improve employee health, as well as to individuals who can buy access to doctor consultation for $99 a month.
Digital healthcare is here. According to a World Economic Forum white paper, “The introduction of digital services will be among the most important factors in transforming healthcare over the next decade.” The report continues, making a point central to us at Techonomy: “There is widespread recognition among leaders in most industries that the role of digital technology is rapidly shifting, from being a driver of marginal efficiency to an enabler of fundamental innovation and disruption.”
This is especially true for U.S. healthcare A recent Accenture report states that “The patient experience is going digital and consumers are leading the way by accessing electronic health records and using digital tools, such as wearables and apps, to manage their health. Patients have firm beliefs about who should access their data—but providers don’t always agree.” The report calls for providers to invest in digital tools and strategies. In the mean time, companies such as Palo Alto-based HealthTap offer compelling alternatives. Meanwhile, the U.S. system is headed for significant alteration. While the Affordable Care Act (or ACA, also known as Obamacare) has expanded the number of people with health insurance, it has had troubling side effects, including skyrocketing premiums and limited provider choices. If the Trump administration doesn’t repeal the law, legislators will almost certainly modify it. A more wholehearted embrace of digital tools could help lower national costs while simultaneously enhancing care.

HealthTap Founder, Ron Gutman.

Wellness has long been a cause for founder Ron Gutman. When he was a graduate student at Stanford University, he was involved in a platform called BeWell@Stanford that sought to encourage members of the university community to be proactive about their health. As he spent more time in healthcare, Gutman wondered why as many as 50 percent of people on medical regimes didn’t adhere to them, frequently not even completing their full rounds of prescription medications. He saw low patient engagement as a call-to-arms, and launched HealthTap to boost engagement, improve medical outcomes, and reduce costs.
“We’re harnessing technology to help us create a transparent meritocracy within the physicians’ community, to drive greater sharing of knowledge,” says Gutman. Physicians on HealthTap’s platform don’t dispense advice anonymously, but patients can remain anonymous when asking questions about a condition or medication. If they have a one-on-one consultation with a doctor, they share their medical history. Gutman says people who use the site have full control of their data, in contrast to EMR and EHR systems.
“We’re the first operating system, the first fully interoperable platform, in healthcare,” says Gutman. “Everything in the system is linked to a user’s personal health records [PHR].” The site is partnered with pharmacies and labs such as Quest Diagnostics so new medical information added to a PHR can go to other physicians if the patient approves.
It’s part of a growing trend in which patients take more control of their healthcare. According to Kaiser Permanente report, “Technology and communications that support healthcare delivery empower people to take an active role in their care.” Kaiser offers an electronic health record system called KP HealthConnect that seeks to provide greater access to medical advice and enable online and phone consultation. Like HealthTap, Kaiser believes more contact with patients—enabled by digital technology—will lead to better care.
The trick is getting doctors on board—many aren’t keeping pace with consumer demand for Internet-based medicine. According to the Accenture report, 92 percent of patients believe they should have full access to their health records, but only 18 percent of physicians feel that way. And most patient-consumers want access to their entire records, not merely a summary—to see what the doctor sees. “They also want the ability to update their records, such as with their demographic information, family medical history, and new symptoms,” says the Kaiser report, adding that doctors agree that patients should be able to update their EHR data.
HealthTap allows physicians to access a increasingly-detailed library of medical information, ask each other questions, and receive expert, peer-reviewed responses. And it has integrated machine learning and natural-language processing into the process. “To have great artificial intelligence you need a great ‘training set’,” says Gutman. “We’ve spent six years with more than 100,000 physicians answering questions and creating tips, building the largest library of doctor knowledge–with 5.3 billion doctor answers to date.”
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-4-48-29-pmAs the company’s reservoir of information expands, doctors can respond more precisely to patient queries. For example, a healthy pregnant woman in her 20s and a man in his 70s will need different answers about diabetes. On the consumer Web there may be hundreds of case studies, and even if a relevant one is found, understanding its implications may be difficult. “On the Internet, every headache becomes a brain tumor in four clicks or less,” quips Gutman.
HealthTap does everything it can to foster the patient engagement that has long concerned Gutman, by providing customized tools for each user that will help them follow through on their regimes, whether it is ingesting a pill or taking their blood pressure. HealthTap sends users a newsletter every week about health and well-being, tailored to their medical histories.
Unlike many Internet businesses, HealthTap doesn’t use customer data to sell advertising, and Gutman doesn’t regret leaving a considerable amount of money on the table. The company generates revenue from the sales of products such as HealthTap Prime, which gives consumers unlimited 24/7 online access to two doctors per device. Users can ask questions, get prescriptions, and arrange referrals and medical tests.
“I don’t think virtual care is about replacing in-person care, but about augmenting it” says Gutman. Users still typically will retain their own personal doctors. But HealthTap fits with what consumers have come to expect in the Internet age: instant and easy access. “In healthcare, customers are called patients, which is funny, because when I’m not feeling well, I’m anything but patient. With technology, we can transcend geographic limits, improve availability, and provide what people want in medical care: quality, speed, and compassion.”