Making Personal Health Networking as Easy as a Book Club: Former Amazon Exec Launches Online Healthcare Site

6/16/08Follow @gthuang

For Keith Schorsch, it all started with a tick. In the summer of 2004, the former senior executive at Amazon was on the East Coast for a family reunion when (unbeknownst to him) he was bitten. Back in Seattle, he came down with a bull’s-eye rash and flu-like symptoms. Then one night, at a Mariners game, the left side of his face became paralyzed. The doctor on call diagnosed him with Bell’s Palsy. Thirteen weeks, 11 doctors, and an immeasurable amount of pain and suffering later, Schorsch finally got the correct diagnosis: Lyme disease.

Even then, it was only because a friend had suggested he get checked for Lyme. (It’s not common in the Pacific Northwest, probably because there are so few bugs.) And then things got worse. After antibiotics treatments—and what he felt was not enough follow-up care from his doctors—Schorsch suffered from exhaustion and memory loss, then blew two discs in his back. He decided to take matters into his own hands, making it his full-time job to research alternative treatments and connect with others online who had similar ailments.

That’s the idea behind Trusera, the Seattle-based online health network that Schorsch is launching to the public today. The name is meant to convey a “new era of trust and truth,” says Schorsch. His site is an advanced social network that allows users to find and connect with others around specific medical issues and healthcare experiences. “We’re not a message board, we’re not a pity party, we’re technologists and marketers building a platform for people who want to take control of their health care,” says Schorsch.

It’s an intriguing combination of Web 2.0, healthcare, and social networking, and Schorsch’s own story shows the need for such a platform. These days it can be extremely difficult to find relevant—and reliable—health posts amidst the chaos of blogs and message boards. “There’s a missing piece of health care today—connecting to people who’ve been through it,” Schorsch says, pointing to a stat that there are 800 million doctor visits in the U.S. every year. “Think of the amount of experience people have just from those visits,” he continues. “There’s a lot of power in being informed by people who’ve been there. We’re building a platform to allow people to share that.”

Trusera began as a modest outfit in January 2007. “We started out in Keith’s attic,” says Jude O’Reilley, employee number two and now director of marketing and product management. “Sort of the inverse of guys in the garage,” says Schorsch. Last summer, after securing $2 million in angel funding, the company moved to new digs on the edge of Capitol Hill, near the Central District, and now it has grown to 15 people: about a third are from Amazon, with others from Microsoft, Starbucks, and the like. The Trusera site has been in open beta testing since March.

On a recent visit to the company, the startup’s energy was palpable. The first thing I noticed was the unusual loft space, with cubicles—stalls, really—made from wooden planks. The space used to be a horse stable, and then a tow truck company. There were the usual hallmarks of a tech product launch: walls of whiteboards plastered with flowcharts, timelines, and yellow stickies. Roaming around the office fairly unconcerned was Schorsch’s dog, Baci (a cancer survivor, and former “second dog in command” at Amazon).

I sat down with Schorsch to drill down into the business a bit more. “My main interest is in making great consumer ideas scale,” he says. “Our purpose is to deliver a very focused solution for our customers—similar to companies like LinkedIn for finding jobs, doing recruiting, or doing business development.” That means Trusera users will be able to search for health topics—such as autism, breast cancer, infertility, and soon rheumatoid arthritis—and find stories, recommendations, and profiles written by people who have identified themselves as similar. Users also rate the content.

The network uses “unstructured” data rather than structured (treating the info all together instead of organizing it into branches), which Schorsch says makes it better for linking people across a variety of different health categories, ranging from parenting to weight loss to nutrition. “We customize based on your clickstream,” he says. “The more you contribute, the better your experience becomes. It parallels the Amazon experience—it should be as easy as buying a book or buying a new car. Right now that’s not possible online.”

In terms of the company’s advertising business model, Schorsch says it is based on health keywords and that his team will lean on “a lot of experience from Amazon, optimizing pages for conversion.” He adds, “Search engine optimization is a big part of the plan.”

Schorsch is quick to mention that health networks like Trusera are not meant to replace physician care. And he has addressed concerns about patient privacy on his network. “You have complete control over who can see your content and how many messages you receive,” he says. Ultimately his network’s success will depend on whether people feel safe and comfortable enough to share their personal stories. “The power of great content inspiring other great content is very viral,” he says. “Now we have to get the word out and develop a content base.”

So how do the prospects look? Pretty good, judging from the number of other online health networks that have popped up around the country—for instance, WebMD (which is more focused on expert content but “does great in advertising,” says Schorsch), Cambridge, MA-based Patients Like Me (affiliated with the pharmaceutical industry instead of advertising), and Daily Strength in the Bay Area.

In the end, Schorsch points out that there are more than 100 million users searching for health topics online these days, so there’s plenty of business to go around. “There’s a huge market for this. There will be a lot of winners in this space.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Dan

    Recently published on: http://www.beforeyoutakethatpill.com

    The Prevention of Ignorance

    Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public, such as radio, TV, or news print. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones.
    Now, and with arguably great elation, there is the internet, which can be rather beneficial for the average citizen.
    Soon after the advent of the internet well over a decade ago, web logs were created, that are now termed ‘blogs’. At that time the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved into addressing topics that often were not often addressed in mainstream media, as they crossed previously existing political and social lines. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others, the readers of the posts of the blog authors, instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers or magazines.
    The authors of blogs vary as far as their backgrounds and intent of what they choose to address on their blogs exactly, just as with other media forms. Some are employed by the very media sources that existed before them. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel. While we can presume that bloggers like to write, they may not be quality writers, yet several are in fact journalists, as well as doctors and lawyers, for example. But to write is to think, which I believe is a good quality one should have.
    Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives and issues often opposed by others, and therefore have become a serious threat to others. These others may be politicians, our government, or corporations- all of which have been known to monitor the content of certain blogs of concern to them for their potential to negatively affect their image or their activities previously undisclosed. This is why blogs, on occasion, have become a media medium for whistleblowers, which will be addressed further in a moment.
    While one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow in addition to the comments of its readers the posting of authentic internal or confidential documents that typically are not created to be viewed by the public, yet are acquired by certain bloggers. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter published by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca on his blog site, and this newsletter was given to him by AstraZeneca’s employees who called themselves the ‘AZ Group of Seven’- with the intent of this group being to bring to the attention of others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of AZ’s cancer drugs promoted by their employer. Yet this particular concern by AZ seven, by surprise, is not what caught the attention of so many who viewed the posted newsletter by Dr. Rost and was read with great interest by others. It was instead a comment included in this newsletter that was stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who was being interviewed by a district manager in this newsletter. Mr. Zubalagga, who in this newsletter posted on Dr Rost’s blog site, referred to doctors’ offices as ‘buckets of money’, which caught the attention of several readers. This and other statements by this man were in fact published in this newsletter clearly not reviewed before its publication. . Again, the statement and the newsletter created by AZ was indeed authentic and further validated due to the content being in the written word, which added credibility.
    Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this ‘buckets of money’ comment due to the effect it had on the image of his employer. His manager resigned soon afterwards from AZ.
    Blogs, one can safely conclude, reveal secrets.
    And there have been other whistleblower cases on various blogs in addition to this one described a moment ago, which illustrates the power of blogs as being a very powerful and threatening media medium of valid information disclosure that others cannot prevent from occurring.
    This, in my opinion, is true freedom of information- largely free of embellishments or selective omissions. It’s a step towards communication utopia, perhaps, yet a force that has the ability to both harm and protect many others.
    Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made, as with other media sources. Of course, documents that are authentic is an example of a good validation source. And this, in my opinion, is the blog’s greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs, which may be a type of Socratic learning.
    Like other written statements, some on such internet sites are composed with respect of the written word. Others are not. It’s the freedom that may be most appealing of this new medium which has the ability to convert citizens into journalists who want to contribute to an issue of their concern they share with the blogger often with great conviction and accuracy.
    Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information disclosed on blogs could potentially be adverse to our well-being.
    Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.
    “Information is the seed of an idea, and only grows when it’s watered.” — Heinz V. Berger
    Dan Abshear