HealthTap wants to provide an alternative for those seeking on-demand health advice. The five-year-old company’s concept is simple: make it possible for anyone, anytime to consult with a doctor via smartphone through its Virtual Consult and Concierge service.
“Every doctor will have a virtual practice by 2020,” says HealthTap founder and CEO Ron Gutman. “That’s how we will augment patient care.”
Gutman, a serial healthcare entrepreneur, says he started the company after realizing millions of people were turning to the Internet for answers to their medical woes but struggling to find a trusted source of information. One in 20 Google queries is for health-related information.
His solution? Create a network of doctors who respond to questions or provide consultations. In the tricky world of healthcare, though, that required convincing doctors, patients, health insurers, and regulators — not to mention investors — that a different type of doctor visit could be the future.
It was a tough sell even a few years ago, but with smartphone penetration reaching 75 percent in the U.S., HealthTap and its like have convinced many. Forty-three states now provide some form of Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine services. The largest insurers are opting to pay for virtual consults to reduce costly emergency room visits. Market research firm IHS predicts the telemedicine industry will grow to $1.9 billion in 2018 from $240 million in 2013.
Many patients pose questions to medical experts on HealthTap for free; others pay $99 a month to consult with a doctor via videoconference or text message. HealthTap now has more than 73,000 doctors in its network.
Some medical experts remain skeptical about telemedicine, fearing it will lead to misdiagnoses of common ailments and unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics. HealthTap has also taken some criticism for failing to adequately vet its doctors.
Still, patients are warming up to the idea. A 2013 study by the Healthcare Intelligence Network found that most people are comfortable chatting with a doctor online, especially for common ailments. Surprising many, telemedicine may also have legitimized the selfie. Ailments diagnosable at a glance, like pink eye, are also a viable option for healthcare at a distance.
HealthTap’s long-term challenge is differentiating itself in the crowded telemedicine space that include well-designed mobile apps like Spruce, which focuses on connecting people with dermatologists, and established competitors like American Well, Doctor on Demand, MDLive, and Teledoc.