As patients increasingly turn to the Internet for health care information and online tools to manage their health, many companies, both new and old, are stepping up to meet the consumer demand.
It is still too early to tell which companies will be successful and how the Internet-savvy health care consumer will transform the patient-physician relationship, but the trend has captured the interest of many health care insiders.
Val Jones, senior medical director of Revolution Health and author of a blog called “Dr. Val and the Voice of Reason,” spoke to iHealthBeat about the online health care market, physician concerns about patients relying on the Internet and the role of medical blogs.
A recent Harris Interactive survey found that the percentage of U.S. adults who looked for health care information online increased from 72% in 2005 to 84% in 2007. Why do you think more and more consumers are turning to the Internet for health information?
I think it’s partially because more and more consumers are turning to the Internet for information, period. Online information is incredibly convenient, served up lightning fast and has revolutionized how we research everything from buying toasters to finding a doctor. Of course, health is much more serious and complicated than purchasing products, so consumers should be very wary of the source of their health information.
Do you see a generational divide in the people using Revolution Health?
We primarily appeal to everyone between the ages of 20 and 60, though women conduct more health searches than men. The only age gaps are related to the medical subjects being researched. Clearly, not too many 20-somethings are reading about menopause, and not too many 50-year-olds are reading about college stress. Otherwise, all of our community tools and groups are fair game for people of any age. We have 60-year-olds blogging and enjoying discussion groups, and 20-year-olds posting forum questions too. It’s wonderful to see the generations interacting online and learning from one another.
New York orthopedist Scott Haig in November wrote an essay in Time Magazine complaining about patients who research their symptoms, illnesses and doctors online before seeking treatment. What are the downsides to patients searching for health care information online?
I think Dr. Haig’s essay has been somewhat misinterpreted because he was focusing on a specific patient with a serious disorder. My favorite quote from Dr. Haig’s article is that “the role of the expert is to know what to ignore.” I think the major downside for patients searching for health information online is that it can be difficult to figure out what’s contextually relevant to them. Aside from that, the next major downside is that there are snake-oil salesmen out there preying on the frustrations that we all have about our broken health care system and promising “miracle cures” and fueling mistrust in doctors.
What can be done to ease concerns from physicians, like Haig, about consumers relying on the Internet for health information?
Educated patients are a pleasure to work with, but misinformed patients require lots of extra help. The hours we spend every week dispelling urban legends and Internet-fueled medical myths is really mind-boggling. Physicians are naturally protective of their patients and don’t want them to be duped or misled.
From Google to Microsoft, companies are beginning to recognize an opportunity in the online health care market. Is there enough room for all of these companies? What will make successful ventures stand out from the rest of the pack?
There’s as much room as consumer demand will fuel. However, only the largest and most innovative companies will ultimately survive long term. While we’re all waiting for the government to create standards for health information and the creation of interoperability rules, successful companies will meet the needs of today’s consumer. Small but practical tools and innovations will keep the companies solvent while we work toward the holy grail of a common health information platform for all the stakeholders.
Medical blogs seem to have taken off in recent years. Who do you think the intended audience is?
Actually, while there are an estimated 70 million blogs out there, only a few hundred doctors are blogging. That’s a huge discrepancy, and I don’t think we’re even at the beginning of the wave of medical blogging that will inevitably occur as doctors enter the Web 2.0 world. The first pioneers of the medical blogosphere are writing mostly for their peers, though patients find their blogs very engaging and read them as well. Very few medical bloggers write specifically for consumers.
What are your predictions for the online health care market in 2008 and beyond?
With decreasing access and increasing patient loads, I think we’re going to see the consumer-driven health care movement take center stage. Patients are going to need to “do it themselves” a lot of the time (meaning manage their own health information, teach themselves about disease management and make financial plans to take care of their own needs if the government cannot afford to do so).
Another trend I have my eye on is the retainer medicine movement. As primary care physicians continue to be squeezed out of existence by decreasing Medicare reimbursements, they are beginning to join an “off-the-grid” group of providers who simply do not accept insurance.
As more PCPs create retainer practices, I think IT solutions will really take off. Online tools that simplify their practices and speed up their patient communication will be welcomed and encouraged.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.