There’s been a lot of recent scrutiny on the concept of ”free” as it relates to apps and technology services. It’s fueled by incredibly crazy valuations for companies like Facebook and newly discovered data access strategies for free apps such as Path. And most recently, there is anger as people apparently finally realize that Twitter might try to make money by selling user data to marketers.
In healthcare, we’re seeing more and more funded companies launching free services, apps, and networks. Some examples include Jiff (patient-centered care platform), HealthTap (social Q&A), Doximity (Facebook/LinkedIn for docs), ShareCare (interactive health network and social Q&A), DocBookMD (secure doc communications), TigerText (secure doc communications), PracticeFusion (ad-supported EMR), DrChrono (iPad EMR), MS HealthVault (PHR), Kareo (for basic PM service), and GoodRx (drug price lookups).
Some of these companies, like GoodRx, are obviously going to make money by helping consumers find products and enabling the transactions. I’m good with that model, though my bet is that eventually GoodRx will start doing more than this. Other companies, like ShareCare, will sell data and intelligence to brands. Still others, presumably Doximity, DocBookMD, PracticeFusion, and HealthTap, will make money from a combination of ads and selling data. I don’t think we’re empowering patients or doctors by putting brands and pharma in the middle of their interactions.
Part of my problem is the lack of transparency into how these companies will actually make money. Maybe it will be ads or maybe data mining, but some companies are still growing and haven’t determined how they will do it yet. As a current or potential user of these services, that’s concerning.
I don’t have a fundamental problem with companies selling my data, but please at least tell me what you’re going to sell. Or tell me that I can expect to start seeing ads at some point. Or tell me I’m going to have to start paying at some point. If you don’t know — or aren’t willing to tell me — how you’ll make money and are focused only on growing the network or user base, then I’ll pass.
I think (or hope) we are reaching the end of expecting everything for free, at least outside of healthcare. I’m willing – in fact, I prefer — to pay for apps and technology that I use and value. Dropbox is a great example. I started using the service for free several years ago. It’s evolved into my main storage and I now happily pay for the space that I need. There are a slew of other apps that are now collecting anywhere from $2-$20/month from me.
The one thing all of my paid services have in common is that they are relatively cheap subscription services. I’m more than happy to pay because pricing is transparent and, although my privacy is not assured just because I pay a subscription, I feel a lot better footing some or all of my own bill and not forcing companies to sell access to somebody trying to capitalize on me.
The potential problem for this cheap subscription model in healthcare is that the number of users is likely a lot smaller than a typical consumer service like Dropbox. There is a finite number of doctors and patients that will use these services, and maybe subscription fees would have to be prohibitively high to get investors their desired ROI. One of the major concerns with funded startups, especially in healthcare, is that investors will drive the revenue generation discussions.
Does anybody else worry about the growth of free-to-the-user models in healthcare? Any other good examples?