Money is pouring into consumer-health Web sites, and doctors aren't about to let this revolution happen without them.
From former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D., to the Mayo Clinic, doctors are at the core of many of the most ambitious Internet consumer-health initiatives. As more players take up positions on the field, a battle for prominence among the sites is rapidly brewing.
Already the most popular source of health information on the Web, the site backed by Koop (drkoop.com) moved in July to expand its reach in a deal with America Online, the nation's dominant Internet access provider. Koop's site will pay $89 million over four years to be the most prominent name that pops up when any of AOL's 19 million registered users search its Health Channel.
Meanwhile, Medscape is hyping its soon-to-be launched consumer-health site on the Web. Medscape, which recently named as editor-in-chief George Lundberg, M.D., former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, already has a solid presence on the Web, giving doctors access to continually updated and custom-tailored medical information. In fact, it's more than doubled its membership each year since its 1996 launch, serving more than 1.1 million members as of May 31, including 200,000 physicians (see May, page 2).
But the company has been slow to enter the promising consumer-health arena. Now it has media powerhouse CBS Corp. behind it. In July CBS bought a 35% equity stake in Medscape -- giving it the right to name three of 10 Medscape board members -- for considerations worth $150 million. The considerations cover a seven-year license to the CBS trademark and logo, as well as promotion and branding across CBS properties. The consumer-health site, CBS.Medscape.com, is expected to be launched in the third quarter of this year.
Other media giants are adding muscle to the Internet health movement, too. For example, NBC has a 7% equity stake in iVillage, whose Better Health is the Web's third most-visited health site, and Time Warner's CNN News Group has an undisclosed stake in WebMD in a three-year "multi-million-dollar" deal.
Such sites already are changing how doctors practice as more patients come prepared with information -- not all of it accurate -- about their conditions and treatment options gleaned from the Web. Indeed, the Web is expected to transform healthcare as significantly as any other technology in the 20th century. Not only is it feeding a consumer empowerment movement, but also it has the potential to eliminate inefficiencies clogging the healthcare system, such as speeding the time it takes to order medical supplies. In particular, Web supporters highlight its ability to improve doctor-patient relationships through education and e-mail.
The potential of the Web is vast: In the United States, more than 22 million adults went online for health information in 1998, a number that is expected to grow to more than 33 million in 2000.
Take the experience of drkoop.com. The 1-year-old site quickly became the most popular health site on the Web, recording 800,000 different visitors as of October 1998. By May of this year, the number of visitors had grown to 1.4 million. The deal with AOL "just jump-starts us" for future growth, says company spokeswoman Stephanie Fulton.
Web healthcare companies are also making a significant splash with their initial public offerings. For example, drkoop.com raised $84 million when it went public in July, and iVillage garnered about $88 million in its March IPO.
Wall Street is excited about the potential for commercial returns. Consider this: The share price of Internet healthcare commerce companies soared 162.5% in the first half of 1999, compared with a 1.1% growth in overall healthcare stock prices, according to the HealthCare Markets Group, a Hilton Head, S.C., healthcare advisory and investment banking firm.
And, physicians and other healthcare providers aren't being left behind.
Providers run four of the 10 most popular health sites, according to Media Matrix. They are: No. 2, the National Institutes of Health site; No. 5, Intelihealth by Johns Hopkins University and Aetna U.S. Healthcare; No. 6, Health Oasis by the Mayo Clinic; and No. 9, the American Medical Association site.
Entrants to the field are proliferating.
All told, SunTrust Equitable Securities Corp. in Nashville, Tenn., tracked 42 consumer-health oriented Web sites in a May report. Even sites not controlled by providers often have close ties to them. For example, drkoop.com draws much of its content from the Dartmouth Medical School, while the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing in May began supplying content to adam.com, an Atlanta-based publicly traded Web site company that provides medical and wellness information to consumers.
Others are backed by drug companies. For example, DuPont is investing $220 million in WebMD over the next five years, sponsoring five years of free subscriptions to the service for 200,000 doctors. WebMD is leveraging its physician products into a consumer platform and recently announced a merger with the Internet healthcare commerce company Healtheon.
The American Medical Association, which has an extensive site, has had informal discussions about expanding its focus on consumers. Nothing, however, is planned at the moment, according to an association spokesman.
VHA, an Irving, Texas-based group of 1,800 not-for-profit healthcare providers, is pushing its new Laurus Web site as a tool to improve doctor-patient relationships. Since Laurus' April launch, it has recorded 125,000 visits. The name is derived from laurel and refers to the laurel-leaf crowns worn by ancient Greek champions.
Targeted at consumers, Laurus offers health information reviewed and approved by physicians, as well as access to MDConsult. It has medical stories from Reuters News Service and profiles of physicians and hospitals. Using the Web site's tools, consumers can search for a physician in their market area who meets their specific requirements, such as specialty, location and even sex. The site provides more than the usual information, such as driving directions to doctors' offices, for example.
After conducting two years of research, VHA launched its pilot last September and, in April, unveiled the project publicly. Officials declined to disclose what VHA was spending on the effort but said it was a significant amount.
VHA's commitment to the initiative was sealed after it learned about half of American households change physicians every two years, not for health insurance reasons, but because they are dissatisfied with their doctors, says Kelli Amick, a VHA spokeswoman.
One way VHA seeks to improve satisfaction is by having its doctors distribute health information brochures published by Laurus. Patients appear to appreciate the gesture, VHA says.
"By enabling physicians and patients to share credible information, Laurus will not only improve the physician-patient relationship, but ultimately it will provide better healthcare," says Stuart Baker, M.D., executive vice president of clinical affairs at VHA.