Consumer Health Success – Wrap-up and Takeaways 8/26/11

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I’m going to wrap up the series of posts I’ve been writing on consumer health success and then assess the key takeaways.

I started out looking for companies that have been successful in targeting consumers with health offering. I wanted to see what companies have seen decent consumer adoption and why. I also wanted to examine whether their offerings could have an impact on chronic disease.

It’s important to focus on the applicability of solutions in chronic disease care. It’s a massive driver of healthcare spending. Diseases like diabetes, CHF, and hypertension are great targets if you want to make meaningful improvements in the health system. However, as I outlined in the opening post, this is a hard group to target, even if you exclude the very ill, post-catastrophic patients.

Along the way I examined six very different companies and/or offerings: WebMD, Walgreens Mobile, RunKeeper, ZocDoc, WellDoc, and PatientsLikeMe. I think the last four are the most exciting — they are new and trying to carve out space in our changing healthcare system. The first two, WebMD and Walgreens, are big, broad consumer brands today. I’m sure ZocDoc (700,000 consumer searches per month), RunKeeper (6 million users), and PatientsLikeMe (114,000 users) would argue that they are very real brands today, particularly with their target audiences.

I don’t think any companies I’ve profiled are effectively reaching chronic disease patients, at least not at scale. However, WellDoc has a compelling offering for diabetics. If it can convert more health systems, payers, and employers, it will extend its consumer reach considerably. Prolonged adoption is still a big question, however.

The other companies aren’t targeting chronic disease patients. That taught me something about the best way to be successful, at least if you want to be successful quickly.

Despite a lack of widespread consumer success with chronic disease patients, there are important takeaways for any company launching a new product or service in health or wellness. We’re seeing — and will continue to see – many companies both new and old offering technology solutions to improve the care of patients and the connections between patients and providers.

1. Fill a Need

It seems so simple, but can be hard. Lots of cool ideas don’t fill a need and don’t go anywhere.

Consider a couple of the companies having success directly targeting consumers. WebMD provides easy access to health information that people are increasingly looking for online. ZocDoc helps consumers find appointment slots within 24-48 hours, while at the same time filling open slots and driving new patients to providers.

PatientsLikeMe helps patients and families with niche diseases find others with similar conditions, providing support over a wider geographic area, something desperately needed with rare diseases. People want to easily fill prescriptions, and Walgreens eases the process over mobile.

2. Engage Providers

I’m convinced providers are the key to success with health offerings. This doesn’t necessarily apply to wellness tools and programs, which can be sold directly to consumers (RunKeeper, Nike+, Zeo) or through employers (Keas, Red Brick, Accolade).

Instead, sell something that directly fits in the healthcare system – ZocDoc for appointment slots; WellDoc for disease management;  iTriage and text4baby for mobile apps. These leverage the influence of the provider.

Doctors remain the trusted source for health information and services. Engaging and enlisting providers can be challenging. Filling a need they have, such as filling appointment slots or streamlining messaging, is the key. 

It’s easier to go after the outpatient or office setting. An enterprise sale takes too much time and money in dealing with the legal, IT, and compliance departments.


3. Stay Focused

This is hard when building something for health and wellness. Our health system is so broken and our population is so unhealthy that it is very easy to start adding features to offerings because they seem to make sense. But the more you add, the harder it is to get people to use it for the intended purpose.

The best examples of focus are ZocDoc, WebMD, and WellDoc. ZocDoc has not become a PHR or started to collect direct payment from consumers. WebMD is purely about finding health-related information — that focus got them through the Internet bubble ten years ago.

WellDoc focused on diabetes initially instead of a mobile chronic disease management platform because platforms are hard to sell. I think WellDoc should remain focused instead of moving to oncology and other areas. Diabetes is big enough.


4. Sell Something Somebody Will Pay For

This is a big risk for healthcare startups. Lots of companies are banking on bundled payments, accountable care, and paying for cost-effective quality.

Finding the right model may be tough if you’re selling something that improves quality. It’s tougher if you are selling it to a provider, payer, or employer, but hoping that a consumer will use it because somebody else is paying for it.

RunKeeper, until recently, was focused on delivering tools to help motivated people track and share their fitness results. Lots of people, including me, are willing to pay for that.

Another model is getting family caregivers to fund the service, which is being done by companies like Independa and GreatCall.


5. Do Research 

If you’re going to sell something that improves outcomes (like chronic disease management tools), get data that backs your theoretical claims.

WellDoc has done this very well, in large part because of its strong links to an academic medical center (University of Maryland).

Others, such as Vitality (GlowCaps) have had great success with research that isn’t exactly rigorous. I think Vitality’s original study included 50 users. No control group, no peer-reviewed study, no academic medical center. The company went on to do studies with Harvard and Duke, but the initial data it used for marketing wasn’t rigorous.


6. Have a Story

Who doesn’t love a good story? Have a good reason why the founders formed the company. The more personal, the better.

PatientsLIkeMe has a sad but memorable reason for its formation. Two of the founders had a brother with ALS and the family couldn’t find a large ALS community. This not only gave it legitimacy with the ALS community (of which PatientsLikeMe is now the largest), but it also built trust that PatientsLikeMe leverages today in creating a sustainable business model that involves selling patient data.

ZocDoc has this too. One of the founders was traveling and couldn’t find a specialist. 

These stories make the companies more relatable.


7. Give Consumers Something They Want

Consumers may or may not realize they need some help managing their health. Either way, it’s important to offer tools and services they value, even if those are not directly related to health. This only applies to developers of personal health management or wellness services, like WellDoc and RunKeeper.

This is probably the most negative realization in looking at these companies. The ones that are successful with consumers target a reachable and engageable group.

WellDoc is trying to reach a very important group, but I don’t if it goes far beyond its trials. In fact, I’m increasingly wondering if the chronic disease cadre is engageable at all. Maybe the employer-targeted solutions are doing better.

To reach this audience, companies are assuming that consumers want social media. Lead with social, but have it relate to and hopefully improve health.

Others are trying games. Social gaming could be effective in health, but still needs to be done in the right way. It also needs to somehow engage providers.

I didn’t review iTriage and text4baby since I cover them regularly, but their key takeaway is the second item — engage providers.


Travis Good is an MD/MBA and is involved with health IT startups.


  • jimmy

    Gad, how I hate that word, “takeaways.” Don’t you “key points?”

  • Christine

    I love the iTriage app- I’ve suggested it to all my friends and family members! It’s so nice to have an app that I can feel trusted in!

  • Alicia

    iTriage and Runkeeper are my two favorite apps.

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