If you go online to look for health information – as about a third of Americans do – chances are the information targets a general audience, not someone with your specific medical history, risk profile or needs. But if you’re looking up diabetes complications, for example, it makes a difference if you’re an older man juggling different medications or a pregnant young woman with no other health conditions.
The larger promise of personalized medicine that considers genomic data on top of medical history and clinical data is still on the verge of reality. But, in the meantime, a few companies are at least beginning to bring a new level of personalization in health care to the web.
On Thursday, Palo Alto-based HealthTap, which lets people ask anonymous questions of a network of 35,000 doctors online, released a new feature that prompts them to tag questions with relevant personal characteristics, including age, gender, prior conditions and medications. (Previously, users had the option to tag questions, but now it’s more front and center and they can add personal characteristics across more variables.) The new addition enables that particular user to receive a tailored reply and also means that, as other users searching the site add information about themselves, they’ll see the content most specific to them.
“Amazon optimizes for your taste, Facebook optimizes for your social graph. We’re doing it for your health graph,” said HealthTap cofounder and CEO Ron Gutman.
HealthTap has long offered tools that enable users to store detailed personal health information with the goal of personalizing content but, as the demise of Google Health showed, consumer personal health records are a tough nut to crack. People don’t care enough to take the time to fill out online forms if they don’t see the reasons for using them, or they’re concerned about privacy implications. HealthTap, which is HIPAA-compliant, is trying to meet people where they are, hoping that if they can see the benefits of providing a little bit of personal information, they’ll be incentivized to provide more.
Now that the site has provided more than half a billion answers (since launching in 2010), Gutman said it’s reached the critical mass for tagged answers to provide meaningful personalization.
Hoping to personalize digital content with data provided by personal health tracking devices, earlier this month, WebMD announced a partnership with Qualcomm Life’s 2net platform to create a cloud-based health hub for consumers. Once users connect their tracking devices to the platform, WebMD said it would be able to aggregate data from those devices and use it to customize searches so that, instead of just getting generic diabetes information, users could receive content specific to their needs. The companies haven’t yet released anything but say they’d roll out their first product later this year. While consumers may see value in personalized information and insights, they could also be reticent to store their data in aggregate with a company known more for content than health services.
Smaller startups are also taking a stab at personalization with sites meant to take aim at “Dr. Google.” Symcat analyzes patient-provided symptoms and personal characteristics against disease prevalence data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other public sources to provide people with likely possible diagnoses. And Meddik goes beyond symptoms to help people access online articles, general resources and answers to questions provided by people in their “health networks” (or who share their condition profiles and symptoms). On both sites, as users participate online, they develop profiles that are used to customize future content they receive.