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

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 Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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