In the world of constantly changing online medicine, HealthTap has doctors and patients hooked. It’s Reddit, Ask Jeeves, Yelp and the Mayo Clinic all rolled into one platform, giving patients direct access to doctors and allowing them to ask health questions that are answered by licensed US physicians, often specialists in the field.
According to HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman, approximately 36,000 physicians use HealthTap, spending an average of 69 minutes per day on the site. That’s a long time, especially for busy physicians. Dr. William Harris, a family physician in Washington, says that HealthTap works simply because it’s addicting. As a system of checks and balances, doctors comment on their peers’ postings. Harris describes the platform as “a video game for doctors,” providing constant positive reinforcement by displaying grateful consumer responses and awarding medals for answering more questions. Dr. George Klauber, a urologist, finds HealthTap to be a useful tool for patients who are too embarrassed to discuss sensitive topics in person.
Interestingly, some doctors think that HealthTap has become an instant hit because it allows physicians to escape the business side of medicine, which often bogs them down. Instead, it appeals to their altruistic side, which is often the reason why they went into medicine in the first place. Through HealthTap, doctors can reach out to people who often use the internet to obtain health information (a number estimated by Gutman to be around 80% of the general population), especially those who have poor access to healthcare or cannot afford it. “Doctors cannot help but help people when their skills are needed,” says Dr. Jeff Livingston, an OBGyn from Irving, Tx. “If there’s someone in need, we want to help. That’s what we do.”
Another reason for the hours of time spent on the platform may come in the form of intellectual stimulation. Dr. Loki Skylizard, a thoracic surgeon in NJ, finds himself spending hours in the literature to validate his answers. He’s also started reading about other topics on the site that catch his interest. HealthTap motivates him to engage in constant self-education, he says.
Although it has come a long way since it was first launched in 2010, some doctors like Dr. Nguyen, a family physician in New Jersey, worry that HealthTap is too superficial in the way that it rewards doctors for answering questions based on quantity rather than quality. It seems to give a false sense of accomplishment by giving out titles such as “top doc” or “best doc” through subjective ratings, he says. These scores are based on perceived answer quality, consumer ratings of bedside manner/personality and the number of “lives saved” or people helped based on thank you notes from consumers. Because physicians can answer any question regardless of their area of expertise, some may answer more questions to increase their score, Nguyen worries, giving mediocre answers to questions not in their area of expertise.
As HealthTap’s reach expands, some practices have started to advocate the use of HealthTap as a resource for patients. Gutman says that 20-25% of office visits are purely informational, so HealthTap is a useful tool for reducing unnecessary informational office visits – especially in light of the expected upcoming shortage of primary care doctors.
Dr. Ami Patel is currently a 2nd year fellow in hematology/oncology at Boston University Medical Center. She received her BS in biology with a minor in psychology from the George Washington University and also attended medical school there. Patel interned for the ABC medical news unit in New York City last year, and she currently reviews oncology medical apps for iMedicalApps.
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