Online Portals Challenge WebMD as Patients’ Source for Health Info

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Cerner’s software for about a dozen years, he says. About six years ago, the health system installed Cerner’s patient portal, which it has branded My IU Health.

Kiray says that launching My IU Health has benefited the staff responsible for answering patient phone calls because workers can reply to patient portal messages on their own time, rather than having to provide immediate responses.

“That asynchronous communication is convenient for both patients and staff,” Kiray says.

Another improvement has been the ability to send patients the results of lab tests or imaging procedures faster than in the past, he says. Before IU Health put in Cerner’s software, Kiray and other doctors would receive paper documents showing patients’ lab results two or three days after the testing was done. IU Health would then mail patients letters telling them what the results were, and their significance. Sometimes patients had to wait weeks for their results, Kiray says.

“Since we went to the EHR and the portal, often I’ll see a patient in the morning and have their labs back in my EHR message center in the afternoon,” he says. “With a couple of clicks, I can automatically generate a result letter, send it out via the portal, and the patient will have the information back that same day.”

Kiray says that when IU Health first started using its online portal, some of his colleagues had reservations about the volume of messages patients would send. “Whenever you roll something new out, all the doctors have great fears that they’re going to be overwhelmed with questions from patients,” he says. “We’ve been at this for several years now and the reality is we don’t get overwhelmed. Patients tend to ask good questions.” (Some health systems configure their portals so that patients are only able to send messages to providers that have seen them in the past.)

Kiray says that some patients turn to My IU Health right away to answer questions about their health. But he says he doesn’t see any problem with a patient looking up information on a health knowledge reference site such as WebMD ahead of an appointment.

“To have educated patients be able to ask themselves questions and make the most of the time we have with them is great,” Kiray says. However, he adds that “there’s some bad stuff out there, too,” when it comes to online health data and recommendations.

Startups and Chatbots

Indeed, WebMD remains a “dominant force” when it comes to providing information to patients about their health, says Andrew Le, one of the co-founders of Buoy Health. Boston-based Buoy’s core product is an online chatbot that searches through thousands of clinical papers in order to suggest diagnoses based on information users enter about themselves and their symptoms.

Le got the idea for Buoy while attending Harvard Medical School. Many of the patients he would see tried to help him make diagnoses based on information they found from Google and other search engines, he says. Due to its popularity, WebMD is often among the top results listed, Le says. One of his criticisms of WebMD is that it tends to “go after that user base who are sick or worried,” often out of a desire to persuade them to buy a particular drug. By contrast, Buoy’s goal is to help users determine the next step in their care, Le says.

Anyone can try out Buoy’s symptom-checker for free, but the startup’s business model involves … Next Page »

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