HealthTap article trips over facts

A recent New York Times article on HealthTap, an online health information network that lets consumers ask doctors questions for free, showed an alarming lack of knowledge.

Let's start with the article's thesis that HealthTap brings online gaming to healthcare. There already are mobile health apps that incorporate games. Moreover, HealthTap does so only as an added feature to engage visitors. As I understand it, the HealthTap website is mainly designed to educate consumers about healthcare by answering their generic questions and by giving them some ability to gauge the value of the replies.

The Times columnist criticizes the site for not requiring that doctors who provide information be board certified. But 80 percent of the physicians in the U.S.--and most of those practicing medicine here--are board certified. Moreover, multiple doctors provide answers to HealthTap questions. So this is a petty charge.

Another criticism leveled at HealthTap is that the replies are limited to 400 characters--too brief for "providing nuanced answers to some medical questions." One reason for that, according to an InformationWeek Healthcare article, is that the participating physicians are not supposed to be practicing medicine online. If they were, it would be an ethical violation and they could be sued for malpractice.

The other reason for the brevity of the replies--and the motivation for many doctors to participate in HealthTap--is that the site helps physicians attract new business. If a patient likes the answers they receive from a particular doctor who practices nearby, they can make an appointment to see that clinician.

The Times capped off its assault on HealthTap with a quote from American Medical Association President Peter Carmel, who said he was concerned about physicians providing medical information online to consumers without performing an in-person exam first. That's certainly a valid criticism of some operations that charge people for online medical advice. But it doesn't seem to describe what HealthTap is doing.

In response to Carmel's remarks, HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman said, "We respect the AMA and would welcome collaboration with them and any other forward-thinking medical organizations looking to improve the quality of care."

To learn more:
- read the New York Times article
- compare the InformationWeek Healthcare piece