The Internet is a hypochondriac's nightmare, as anyone who has Googled his medical symptoms can attest. (Sore throat? Might be a cold. Or it might be thyroid cancer.) Plus, it's not always clear who is serving up those diagnoses and remedies. That's why Ron Gutman created HealthTap, an app that lets people pose medical questions to real doctors.
Since the Palo Alto, California-based company launched in 2010, HealthTap's growing community of more than 48,000 physicians has answered nearly one billion questions. Eventually, says Gutman, HealthTap could reduce the cost of health care by eliminating unnecessary doctor visits.
Recently, Gutman spoke with Inc. about how he got started.
I Wanted to Change Health Care
I got interested in health care in 2003 as a graduate student at Stanford University's business school. I was part of an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty that developed new ways to get people to engage in improving their health. We used technology such as an online health risk assessment tool and cell-phone reminders to help people manage their health better.
After I graduated, I dove deep into the consumer health market. I started--and eventually sold--a company called Wellsphere, which provided health content to consumers. But I wanted to create a new kind of system where consumers could get more than just content. I wanted to bring physicians into the game.
When I started HealthTap, my mission was to improve the life expectancy of humankind by giving people immediate access to health information and doctors, anytime and anywhere. To do that, I focused on two things that have been inexplicably forgotten in health care: trust and instant gratification.
People Are Sick of Waiting
Using the word patient to describe someone with a medical condition is problematic, because if you are suffering from physical or emotional pain, the last thing you are is patient. But patients are forced to have patience and sit in waiting rooms. That's a very strange thing for a service industry. Why is it that the customer always comes first, but a patient is someone who can wait?
Often, people end up waiting for days until they can get an appointment to see their doctor. So they go online and spend hours trying to find the answers. It's like going to your doctor and having him give you a bunch of articles to read. My goal was to give people answers in the moments when they were in the most pain.
I wanted HealthTap to be free and simple to use. After you sign up, you can submit questions online or via the app. In just a few minutes, you'll receive answers from real doctors all over the country. You can also search through the questions and answers submitted by other users.
Each Doctor Gets A Score
I brought on two other co-founders, people I have known for a long time. Sastry Nanduri is a technologist, and Geoff Rutledge is both a physician and a data scientist.
We started in 2011 by approaching a small group of doctors: pediatricians and obstetricians in the Palo Alto area. We connected them with pregnant women and new moms and created a place where they could come together and interact. Now, we have doctors in more than 3,100 cities across the country who cover 137 health specializations.
Doctors have to apply to join our network. We have strict guidelines about whom we accept. We have rejected hundreds of physicians who have faced disciplinary action or had malpractice suits filed against them. Trust is critical. Each doctor on HealthTap gets a score, based on his or her medical experience and peer ratings.
Doctors participate because HealthTap lets them build their online reputation, find new patients, and build their referral networks. To date, HealthTap has generated more than 38 million patient referrals. It also lets doctors learn from one another.
I decided against putting advertising on our app and our website. If we had embraced ads, we would have been profitable already. But I wanted to build a platform for delivering reputable care. You don't see consumer ads when you go to a clinic or a hospital.
We Could Save Billions of Dollars.
HealthTap will become extremely important once Obamacare kicks in. We can provide an alternative to those simple cases that don't require office visits. Based on a conservative estimate, that's about 25 percent to 30 percent of them. The cost of doctor visits in the U.S. is more than $500 billion a year. If we can eliminate one-third of those, it would be huge. Everyone wins. Customers get faster answers, doctors can service more patients, and the government can save a tremendous amount of money. We are creating a triage system that frees up the health care system and makes sure the heavy resources get spent on solving the most difficult cases.
The Mission Is Everything
At HealthTap, our first and foremost goal is to save lives and improve people's quality of life. For now, the service is free. I believe we have a responsibility to always provide a baseline service for free for those who are less fortunate. But I am a social capitalist, and I want to create value for everyone involved in HealthTap, including our investors.
Eventually, we will make money by facilitating real-time conversations with doctors outside of their offices. We are currently working on a premium product that will give our users more choices and channels to access doctors.
What is so beautiful about our model is that it frees up all this knowledge that is currently locked in exam rooms. Not just here in the U.S., but everywhere. We are constantly getting requests to open up HealthTap to other countries. Can you imagine the impact we can have by providing billions of people with access to physicians and specialists they can't get access to today? We could literally change the world.
When I was younger, I underestimated the importance of having a mission. We get thousands of notes from people thanking us for what we're doing. We've even received notes from people thanking us for saving their lives. It's so rewarding and motivating to wake up and know that our software is saving people's lives while we sleep.