First you had mail. Now you've got health.
Steve Case, founder of America Online, wants to make health-care resources, services and products easy to find and use so people will track their health as they do their stock portfolios. He's put information, tools, commerce and online communities in a single place called RevolutionHealth.com, a free, comprehensive consumer health site that launched on Thursday.
Like other health and wellness sites, RevolutionHealth offers a symptom checker for people researching what ails them and lists and patient reviews of doctors. But the site goes several steps further, encouraging people to build their own health pages and personal health records in a bid to capitalize on two major trends: online social networking and "consumer driven" health care, which gives consumers more responsibility for their care and its costs.
Case wants to build a powerful health-care brand, and he's targeting mothers.
"We created RevolutionHealth to make health and health care simpler for everyone, but particularly for busy moms, who often serve as the chief medical officers for their families," Case told listeners during a Webcast Thursday morning.
He announced the acquisition of CarePages, a free site that lets caregivers post photos and journal entries about their loved ones' care. RevolutionHealth has partnerships with the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Society for Women's Health Research, IVillage and the National Family Caregivers' Association, among others. It features content from Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Prevention magazine and Harvard.
On its site, IVillage will offer its 16 million users two RevolutionHealth tools for health risk assessment and health history, said Deborah Fine, president of IVillage properties in New York.
"We really are the ticket for Revolution to reach the women's market," Fine said. "Women and moms are juggling three things: they're juggling career, juggling parenting and we know they're juggling health."
RevolutionHealth is free for users. But for $129 a year, it offers an advocacy and assistance service that will do tasks such as fighting insurance claims or finding a pediatrician on members' behalf. An online store supported by Drugstore.com hawks everything from supplements to water filters, and a separate page facilitates health-insurance comparisons and purchases.
Money on the line
Case's approach compliments the rising push for consumer-driven health care, especially health savings accounts, which pair high-deductible insurance with a savings vehicle, said Carlton Doty, senior analyst for Forrester Research in Boston.
"He's trying to take advantage of the fact that consumers do in fact or will in fact have more control of their health-care dollar," Doty said.
RevolutionHealth is part of the broader trend of "retail-ization" of health care, which has seen companies as disparate as Wal-Mart and Best Buy get into elements of the business, he said.
It's too early to tell where people will want to get their health information and how much they'll seek, said Gary Claxton, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"It's probably going to be most useful to people when it's tied up with their financial commitments," Claxton said. "That involves the health plans in one way or another. It's too soon to know if [consumers are] going to trust their health plans to be good conduits for objective information."
Insurers such as Aetna have invested in extensive online offerings for their members.
Americans turn to the Internet for health information in droves, and what they find there appears to affect their behavior. Of Internet users, 80%, or about 113 million adults, have researched a health topic online, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a Washington nonprofit that looks at the social impacts of the Internet.
Two-thirds of "health seekers" start at a search engine such as Google or Yahoo while 27% go straight to a specific health-related site, according to Pew's latest data. Nearly six out of 10 said the information they found in their last inquiry affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition, while 55% said their Web surfing led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion.
"Women are far and away the more active seekers," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Women are the gatekeepers certainly for their families, and in many cases for their friends as well."
In the increasingly crowded online health field, WebMD draws the most eyeballs. It captured 10.5 million people who visited the site at least once last month, according to Nielsen NetRatings. Yahoo Health came in second with 6.6 million visitors.
A government site, NIH.gov from the National Institutes of Health, also figured prominently in comScore Media Metrix data for March, as did Everyday Health, About.com Health and MayoClinic.com. Another often-visited company, Healthline.com, plans to integrate its medical search technology on Eons.com, a site geared for baby boomers and people over 50.
The behemoth is WebMD.com, the publishing arm of Emdeon, which owns and operates two other consumer health sites and two doctor-oriented sites with the help of more than 200 full-time editorial employees.
During the last three months of 2006, WebMD Health attracted 35 million visitors to its five sites, chief executive Wayne Gattinella said. In addition to its 10-year-old eponymous flagship site, WebMD also launched a consumer-targeted magazine more than a year ago, distributing 1 million free copies to doctors' offices every other month.
The company already offers some of the online features, such as personal health records, that RevolutionHealth is touting, Gattinella said.
"WebMD has a tremendous lead time over new entrants, but certainly health care is a marketplace that can support multiple players," Gattinella said. "The expertise and experience combined with the WebMD brand make our market position difficult for new players to challenge."
The subscription model has worked for Consumer Reports, which has seen "phenomenal growth" in its Medical Guide since its launch nearly two years ago, said Paige Amidon, senior director for health in Yonkers, N.Y. For $19 a year or $4.95 a month, subscribers get access to ratings on prescription drugs' clinical effectiveness and off-label use as well as the safety and efficacy of natural medicines.
Gaps in the coverage
As health sites strive to gain consumer trust, weaknesses remain. The 2006 Pew report found that few displayed the source and date of their online information, leaving consumers to guess about its quality.
Community-building forums can spawn similar problems. WebMd, for example, has expert-led message boards across 140 different topics and condition areas, Gattinella said. But readers aren't permitted to post whatever they please.
"In health care, the idea of user-generated content can be potentially dangerous," he said, noting that WebMD's message-board moderators intervene if a user's input becomes hazardous or overtly commercial. "We've developed a balance between community and ethical editorial that we believe is important in health care."
For his part, Case is taking the long view, having learned from his AOL days that big changes don't happen overnight. Instant messaging took 10 years to reach the masses, he said.
RevolutionHealth's high degree of personalization and partnerships with blue-chip names set it apart, Case said. "In the long run, we want to put patients back in the center of health care."