Online Portals Challenge WebMD as Patients’ Source for Health Info

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Suppose you wake up with a mysterious rash. Or you’ve got back pain, or have come down with a cough unlike any you’ve experienced previously. What’s your first move?

Maybe you run a Google search. Maybe you text a doctor or nurse you know. Or maybe you attempt to get through your normal morning routine, but start to worry and try to get your primary care physician on the phone.

Many different types of organizations could help—or hinder—the ability of patients experiencing health problems to find reliable information. They include networks of hospitals and clinics, companies that have built software allowing patients to get (and solicit) medical advice from their healthcare providers, and independent health knowledge websites.

Online patient portals and health reference websites have been available for years, of course, but some of them are now being combined in new ways. Meanwhile, startups and bigger software companies are promising to introduce new technologies—from chatbots to patient-facing apps and portals—that they envision disrupting the status quo.

A big part of that status quo is consumer-facing sites like WebMD—and now a big question is what comes after them? In July, the New York-based business announced it had been acquired by Internet Brands, a portfolio company of the private equity firm KKR, in a deal valued at $2.8 billion.

WebMD has clearly built a valuable brand. Nearly 72 million users visit the website each month, making it the 36th most trafficked website in the U.S., according to the research group ComScore.

But WebMD also has its critics. Some of them have asserted that the website’s layout can have the effect of stirring up fear in order to get people to buy the treatments advertised alongside articles.

One of WebMD’s chief rivals is MayoClinic.org, a collection of articles, images, and other content authored by staff at the Rochester, MN-based health system. Perhaps in a nudge to WebMD and other competitors, Mayo emphasizes the role its physicians, researchers, and other employees play in writing, editing, and updating the information that appears on the website.

Sandhya Pruthi is a physician at Mayo as well as its chief medical editor, a role in which she’s tasked with overseeing all medical content on MayoClinic.org. She says the fundamental aim of publishing free health information online is to provide a resource to patients, no matter where they receive care. The goal is not to persuade patients that they should go to one of Mayo’s hospitals or clinics and receive care there, she says. (However, it’s likely there have been some instances where that’s happened.)

Like WebMD, MayoClinic.org displays ads, some from pharma companies, next to articles on health conditions. These ads may be targeted to the Web page someone is viewing, or based on “non-personal” user data, Mayo says. The health system says that under its advertising and sponsorship policy, Mayo doesn’t endorse companies or products, and that “advertisers and sponsors must not make unsubstantiated health claims” in ads that appear on Mayo’s website.

Portals and Content

Mayo seeks to position itself along the cutting edge of healthcare, in part through the work performed at the organization’s Center for Innovation, which was established in 2008. The technologies developed at the center include decision aids aimed at helping doctors present information to their patients in a way that helps them make a plan together.

Now, Mayo is working to make it possible for patients across the country to access … Next Page »

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