HealthTap Seeks to Arm Healthcare Consumers with Better Answers, and Better Questions, Before They Go to the Doctor

4/19/11Follow @wroush

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interrogate users about their symptoms, the site really does help users figure out—in a way that a general reference site would be hard-pressed to do—whether they should be complacent or alarmed about a given problem. In the example in the video, the system is able to help a hypothetical questioner—who’s assumed to be 18 weeks pregnant—figure out that her mild fever, combined with tenderness in the side, might be a sign of kidney infection, a serious complication of pregnancy that usually requires hospitalization and/or treatment with antibiotics.

This approach frees users from having to know a lot of medical terminology before they can even ask the right question about their symptoms. “My wife is a doctor, and I come from a family of physicians, and we understand each other really well, but the problem is that most people don’t grow up with the lingo,” says Gutman. “We are not educated to speak ‘health’ and when we start encountering problems, we are not equipped to engage, so we make a ton of mistakes.”

Gutman says the HealthTap team constructed the question trees by distilling the latest published research, trawling the Web to see what kinds of questions people ask about pregnancy and infancy, and getting feedback from beta testers—including pregnant women and new moms as well as physicians. By the time a user is done answering questions about her current issue, the site has a pretty good picture of her situation—and there’s a summary printout function that lets users take this information with them to the doctor’s office.

The benefit here is that doctors—who are paid by the visit, and therefore must minimize their time with each patient—don’t have to waste time going over the same information the patient already explored and documented in their encounter with HealthTap. “We are helping doctors spend more of the time on you,” says Gutman. “It saves time during the visit, and gives better quality of care.”

HealthTap has some high-profile backers who evidently buy into Gutman’s vision. They include individual investors like Aaron Patzer—who’s also focused on personalization as founder of Mint.com, and now as leader of Intuit’s personal finance group—-as well as Esther Dyson and former Veritas CEO Mark Leslie. These angels teamed up last month with Menlo Park, CA-based Mohr Davidow Ventures to issue HealthTap $2.35 million in convertible-note financing. It’s not clear yet how HealthTap intends to generate revenue, though Gutman is adamant that he doesn’t want to gunk up the site with display ads pushing name-brand drugs. Such ads are the mainstay of WebMD, HealthCentral, and other consumer health sites.

“We are extremely blessed to have investors who understand what it means to build products that change the game, and how it important it is to build, first, a very robust product that serves people,” Gutman says. “We are spending literally 98 percent of our time on how to make this product really useful. We haven’t dug deep into the business model, but whatever we do, it will be 100 percent transparent to the user and will align the business interests with their personal interests.”

Gutman feels that if HealthTap can make the time doctors and patients spend together more productive, while also making doctors’ wisdom more available to patients outside the office and making Internet-based medical advice more relevant, it could go a long way toward fixing what ails the U.S. healthcare system. “That fact is that these things are so broken today—they just don’t work well,” he says. “What makes Silicon Valley so special is that it looks to these big challenges. Just solving a small problem is not going to get my team excited.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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