Healthcare Q&A

I decided to test out HealthTap earlier this week. Since the company has now entered the inflated funding elite of health IT, joining the likes of ZocDoc and Castlight and a few others, I thought it might be worthwhile to test it out.

I’m privy to tons of curbsides as my network of friends on Path seem to ask almost daily clinical questions of each other. The questions are typically personal or related to family and friends, not patients seen at work. Lots of the questions relate to kids or women’s health – rashes and stuff usually. That isn’t surprising considering a majority of my doctor friends on Path are moms and physicians.

I picked a totally random question. "Why do some women get a metallic taste in their mouths with IUD placement" (I reworded it to make it more HealthTap-esque), downloaded the mobile app, and asked. It was very easy to get registered and ask a question. The app is clean and responsive, though not as crisp and fast as I would’ve expected from a consumer-focused Northern California company. It’s a hybrid app, built with HTML and using PhoneGap to wrap it and make it native (I’m not sure what native functions the app uses other than access contacts). Give it a try and see if you notice any slight lag on tap.

Back to the question. I asked it expecting some great responses. To my disappointment, I’ve only gotten one response three days later. The response, shown above, was "no idea, maybe a placebo effect". For some reason there is an image of a kid getting dental work as part of the response. That’s it. Really.

I now have the option to "Make appt.", "Share", or "Flag". Not to bash Dr. Nieves for "answering" the question, but his response was not really an answer, didn’t provide me with any guidance on where I might find an answer, wasn’t sympathetic, and didn’t ask any follow-up to see if he might be able to answer the question if he had more information.

Also, since the question and answer are public (you’ll find it if you search for it on HealthTap), I don’t feel like mentioning Dr. Nieves by name is wrong. I actually flagged the response as not being helpful or not answer the questions. We’ll see what that does.

Maybe my question was a bad one because I didn’t make it personal. I’ve then asked several more questions to see what I get back. One of my follow-up questions got a much better and faster response, pictured above. Granted the question might have been easier, but Dr. Ebner answered it completely, with a thorough and actionable recommendation. Kudos to Dr. Ebner. In this case, I did thank him for his answer, which I’m assuming bumps up his reputation score in some way.

What I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of very similar questions to what I’m asking, but they have very slight variations. If I’m using a site like HealthTap, it’s because I want an answer to my question, and because it’s my health, I think my question is unique to me. If I just wanted to look up health-related information, I’d use Google. Since HealthTap is free, I usually opt to ask my questions anyway, even if similar but slightly different (skin type, missing or additional symptoms) questions have been asked and answered.

Eventually I assume HealthTap has similar ambitions in terms of content and SEO to what StackExchange has been able to do for programmers and coding education in general. For those that don’t know, StackExchange is a very popular site where programmers can ask and answer questions. Over the years, it has built an incredible amount of very valuable content, all user-generated and curated. 

Because StackExchange users ask questions in a syntax similar a Google search, it tends to be at the top of almost all Google searches for programming-related questions, driving more traffic and content to the StackExchange. The dynamic nature of StackExchange also helps with SEO. I think this is where HealthTap is headed — hoping to be the place where people end up when they search for a health-related question.

There are other very cool things about StackExchange, like the way it does user status based on points that determine what users can do on the site. It’s a meritocracy. Different levels of status allow users to do things like vote up and down, flag content, etc. The folksonomy method used to do tagging on StackExchange is very neat as well.

As far as I know, HealthTap doesn’t do any of this other cool stuff, but it should, or it should think about how it can adapt it to healthcare. StackExchange, and programming, don’t map exactly to HealthTap and healthcare, but there are thoughtful lessons that HealthTap or any of similar services like Doximity and Sharecare should learn from and try to adapt as I think they increase the engagement of users, increasing the overall value of the networks in the process.

One other thing. I think it’s important for doctors to see HealthTap as an extension of their reputations, sort of like Quora is for everybody and StackExchange is for programmers. In HealthTap’s perfect world, I think it would become like a StackExchange for doctors, or something that is seen as a great way to get the flavor of a doctor — interests, expertise, colleague standing. Continuing to use comparisons to developers, HealthTap would be similar to GitHub in that people include links to their HealthTap profiles in e-mails or business cards or landing pages like

If that’s the case, doctors should put a lot of thought into every answer and interaction since they are building a public profile and persona. Not knowing answers is fine — that’s not the issue. There are plenty of answers that get up-voted on other sites simply by linking to the best places to find answers.

I started this post intending to write about ZocDoc and doctor search and finding in general. Now 1,000 words later I’m just wrapping up my thoughts on HealthTap. The reason I started with HealthTap is I think it’s similar to ZocDoc and lots of other new services in that it’s breaking down barriers to finding providers and getting answers.

On the surface, asking questions and booking appointments are very different, but these are all going to converge. Important to note: ZocDoc has an Answers site in beta that is exactly like HealthTap. That convergence is what I’ll cover in my next post.

Anybody have experience with HealthTap they’d like to share? I’d love to hear the good and bad.

Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.

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