Healthline Battles WebMD with Personalized Medical Search Tools, Body Maps

11/30/11Follow @wroush

“Marcus Welby is dead.”

So says West Shell, the CEO of San Francisco-based Healthline. Not that Dr. Welby was ever actually alive—the fictional physician, played by Robert Young, made house calls for ABC TV from 1969 to 1976. But Shell’s point is that few people these days have a family physician like Welby to whom they can easily turn with medical questions. These days, says West, “The doctor is your third opinion”—the first two being the Web and, you guessed it, the Web.

Shell says 170 million Americans turn to the Internet every month for help managing their health. And Healthline, the 130-employee company he’s been leading since 2005, captures a huge portion of them: roughly 100 million per month, spread across the many Web properties, such as Yahoo Health, AARP.com, and DoctorOz.com, that use the company’s search tools and medical content. It’s one of the three largest U.S. providers of consumer health information on the Web, the others being WebMD and Everyday Health.

What sets Healthline apart from its competitors, according to Shell, is its focus on technology. Healthline’s core asset is a health-specific search engine programmed with a vast set of categories and definitions—a “semantic taxonomy,” to use the search industry term. The taxonomy helps consumers find the information they need, even if they don’t know the right keywords to use. To take a simple example, the Healthline taxonomy knows that “Lou Gehrig’s disease” and “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” are the same thing, or that “brittle bone disease” is technically known as “osteogenesis imperfecta.”

Healthline CEO West Shell

“Doctors speak in Latin, insurance companies speak in billing codes, and patients speak in English,” says Shell. “These terminologies are incredibly difficult. But at the end of the day, the reason we beat Google and Microsoft and Yahoo in terms of being able to search health information and deliver it is that it’s the most complex information retrieval problem there is. Over half of the staff here are engineers, medical informatics specialists, doctors, pharmacologists, and nurses. That’s our unfair advantage.”

Much of the information available on Healthline is written by the company’s own researchers and contract writers. But it’s also a rich source of articles and videos syndicated from other sources around the Web, such as 5min, a library of instructional videos owned by AOL. Healthline also offers one of the Internet’s most comprehensive symptom search services. If you’re suffering from, say, excessive yawning, Healthline will give you a long list of potential causes, from insomnia to sleep apnea to a heart attack, and share information on potential cures and costs, as well as leads on local doctors who specialize in treating these conditions.

Healthline has raised about $50 million since 2005 from VantagePoint Venture Partners, Investor Growth Capital, and a group of strategic investors including General Electric, Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, US News, and Reed Elsevier. It’s looking like those backers made a good bet. The company’s business is growing at a rate of 50 percent per year, according to Shell. This fall, Healthline ranked 75th on Deloitte’s list of the 500 fastest-growing technology companies in North America.

That’s a remarkable turnaround for a dot-com era company that nearly disappeared from existence in the mid-2000s. Originally known as YourDoctor.com, the site was created in 1999 by James Norman, M.D., an endocrine specialist and Internet health education pioneer. YourDoctor.com built the foundations of a semantic taxonomy for health, but after the bust, the startup just couldn’t compete with WebMD, long the 800-pound gorilla of health publishing on the Web. By the time Shell, took over in 2005, the company had shrunk to just five people.

As the former CEO of e-marketing company Netcentives and mobile fleet management startup Sapias, Shell brought an understanding of both enterprise-scale software development and Internet marketing. He renamed the company, raised new capital, and decided to invest heavily in improving the taxonomy. The goal, he says, was to “understand the relations between symptoms, diseases, risk factors, complications, drugs, all those things. That way our query parsing engine can understand the meaning of a query and rank the results based on what we know the person needs, not based on a popularity contest of who’s linking to whom. You don’t want to be close in healthcare—you want to be accurate.”

But Healthline isn’t just about personalized search. In keeping with its effort to sidestep complex medical terminology, the company has made a big push in the last year to present health information visually-and not just through videos, which are abundant on the site, but through interactive graphics of the human body. “Health search has been incredibly text-based,” says Shell. “But many people learn visually better than they do through text. For us to be able to use human anatomy as a search paradigm made sense to us.”

In partnership with investor GE—which, as the world’s leading maker of medical imaging devices, has access to huge databases of CT, MRI, and X-ray data—Healthline in May introduced BodyMaps, a collection of almost 1,000 3D models that can be rotated in space. Cutaway views feature musculature, vasculature, bones, and other systems, and everything is labeled with pop-up explanations, which link in turn to detailed Healthline articles. If you’re facing knee surgery, for example, you can use BodyMaps to grok the difference between the lateral meniscus, the tibial collateral ligament, and the posterior cruciate ligament.

BodyMaps have seen “phenomenal” uptake among Healthline users, according to Shell. Visitors spend twice as long with the 3D models as they do perusing text-only pages. The company’s development roadmap includes plans for animated graphics that explain disease processes, rather than simply showing healthy bodies and tissues. “This is how people learn to be nurses and doctors—they have access to a lot of rich visuals,” Shell says. “This is the first time we’re bringing it to the consumer marketplace. I think it’s going to change the way we find health information.”

The company transforms all that information into revenue in two ways. The first is targeted advertising. Search for “arthritis,” and you’ll likely see a display ad for etanercept (Enbrel), a genetically engineered anti-inflammatory drug originally developed by Immunex and now marketed by Amgen and Pfizer.

Then there are the company’s content and licensing deals. The beauty of Healthline’s service is that the taxonomy, the symptom search tools, and the text and video content can go wherever consumers are. All of the articles and search features at Yahoo Health at AARP.com are all courtesy of Healthline, for example. In fact, Shell says only about 5 million of Healthline’s 100 million monthly users actually come to the Healthline website. The rest find the information via the company’s syndication partners.

Shell says he had job offers in the music and digital-imaging sectors back in 2005, but chose Healthline because his intuition as a baby-boomer—he’s 56—told him that healthcare would be the next big industry transformed by the Internet. “Information technology is going to drive what has traditionally been a provider-centric business to become a consumer-centric business,” he says. “And as we’ve done with every other industry, the baby boomers are going to be the ones to take healthcare around the throat and change it.”

They may not get any help with that from Marcus Welby, but they’ll definitely get some from Silicon Valley.

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

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  • Tim

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