Scientific and medical research has seen explosive growth in the past few decades. Since 1996, the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) has maintained PubMed, a free portal providing access to references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. PubMed now has over 21 million citations going back to 1966, and continues to add a staggering amount (about 500,000 new records) each year. The chart below was adapted from a recently published journal article about PubMed.

Article by Zhiyong Lu

Today, clinical professionals have tools (like Ovid, ScienceDirect, UpToDate, Trip) that help answer complex questions and are connected to validated knowledge bases derived off of sources like PubMed. But how does a patient, with no access or expertise in the domain find and leverage this information? Medify tries to solve that.

The value proposition of Medify is not easy to describe. In fact, the ‘What is Medify‘ description on the site was banal enough to be dismissed, just like most other online social health startup marketing. They do a better (albeit prolix) job on the ‘How it works‘ page. Medify will appeal to the well-informed patients who are not afraid to sift through piles of academic articles burdened with medical jargon to understand and manage their own disease. Medify gives them a dashboard of existing literature – with it they can monitor things like which treatments are gaining traction in the provider community, which institutions are on the forefront of relevant research, etc. Affiliated web 2.0 functionality like faceted search, social sharing, tracking, annotating are bundled in to make it more personal.

Under the hood, it is smartly leveraging what public knowledge bases are already out there. The citation and abstract are free from PubMed. Interstitial phrases and terms in the content are further linked to sources like Wikipedia and MeSH. Brief outcomes or summaries are synthetically constructed from the article text.

Medify is not alone. There are other sites that try to help patients navigate the vast sea of research literature. PubMed’s parent NLM runs MedLinePlus,  UpToDate has a patient-oriented version, and niche startups like MyDailyApple, PatientsLikeMe are also tackling this to some extent.

In 2001 Brian Haynes, MD, PhD wrote an article describing the landscape of such ‘pre-appraised’ resources through a hierarchical structure that had four layers (called “4S” Model):

  • Original ‘Studies’ (what PubMed provides) at the base
  • ‘Syntheses’ (systematic reviews sources like The Chochrane Library) of evidence just above that
  • ‘Synopses’ (like EBM, EBN Online) of studies and syntheses next up, and
  • the most evolved evidence-based information ‘Decision Support Systems’ at the top.

He later expanded the model to 2 more layers (read about the “6S” paper here), but the basic argument remained same – Information seekers should begin looking at the highest level resource available for the problem that prompted their search. That is a good framework to understand why services like Medify are needed.

The skeptics would argue that offerings like Medify will do little more than empower hypochondriacs. But I believe that well-served health information only makes outcomes better. The lag time between published research being implemented in real-world medical practice can be in the order of decades. As consumers, we are entrusted to make choices about other important topics like money, and the market provides personal finance tools/services to help. Same can apply to healthcare, without diminishing the role of experts.


HealthlineLogoUsually I’m wary of putting time into big-budget health portals, but San Francisco based Healthline deserves a mention. They have a portfolio of healthcare search, navigation and content that is syndicated through a growing network of big web properties like AARP,, iVillage, AOL etc.

Healthline was founded in 1999 as and was re-launched as Healthline Networks in 2005. It’s got some deep-pocket investors behind it (Aetna, NBCU, Kaiser Permanente, Reed Elsevier, US News & World Report to name a few) so I’m not surprised that they have managed to create (what they call as) ‘Consumer Healthcare Taxonomy’ of >1 million terms and 250K medical concepts. That is what powers their proprietary ability to organize and present contextually-relevant health information to a viewer. Personally I don’t think of it as novel, given that there are plenty of precursors in the medical ontology area (SNOMED, UMLS…) that match this feat.

So Healthline can power health search in multiple ways (symptom, treatment, doctor, drug) and help consumers navigate to the right information. They have also branched out into health-specific ad network, PHR etc. Regardless, I’m interested in mentioning Healthline because of their excellent 3D Body Maps. They have a neat library of 3D animations that lets you partially control and understand body structure and function. Much like CareFlash. Development of these consumer-oriented educational health content repositories is a positive trend, although it’d be much nicer if all these individual attempts were cataloged in one place, giving a complete guide to educational 3D health and wellness content on the web. Like what Clicker does for Internet television.

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VitalsLogoVitals is a physician search and rating destination. The fact that we need such tools is indisputable, although there are a plethora of sites that claim to have this ability now (DrScore, RateMDs, HealthcareReviews, HealthGrades, DoctorScorecard to name a few) . Which is part of the reason why none of them is successful enough to be the ultimate source of such information. Board certification, address, affiliations, publications, education etc. are all public information anyway (albeit in obscure hard-to-find databases that are generally out of scope for a normal patient). Its the subjective rating and candid feedback from actual patients that is hard to find. The fact that there are multiple places claiming to be the repository of such ratings is not helping the situation.

Ranting aside, I like the user-friendliness of this site- very easy to navigate and see relevant information. They also do a good job of digging up public information from various sources and aggregate it all in a as-comprehensive-as-possible profile. Was also impressed by the fact that they have a healthy growth in traffic (now more than half a million unique’s every month, according to Compete).

Given the fact that potential users perhaps value ratings/recommendations/comments from other patients most, the biggest issue with all such sites is how to validate such information. In my search for multiple doctors, user ratings were almost non-existent. But even if they were as abundant as on Amazon, how does one establish their authenticity? I was able to submit ratings on one doctor without submitting any proof that I was ever treated by him (in full disclosure, the rating didn’t show up right away so its not that simple apparently. For example, their FAQ page says you can only rate your doctor once a month). Not sure about their revenue model either, since its free for users. Regardless, this is a good site to bookmark, just for getting all the public information about your doctor in one place.


ZocDocLogoZocDoc is a free service that allows patients to book Doctor appointments online in New York City. It started in September 2007 as a service to help people find and make dentist appointments in NYC, and has now includes other specialties too (like primary care, dermatologist, ENT, ortho, OB/GYN, allergist, podiatrist, etc.)

Patients get to use the site for free-  looking up physicians that accept their insurance and setting up appointments with them. Apparently, physicians need to pay to join ZocDoc and their enter availability info. Given their recent start, focus on one metropolitan area, the monthly unique visitor count is significant (20K+ according to dataopedia).

Interesting idea overall, kind of for clinical care. The fact that you can set up a guaranteed appointment with a care provider today is a great feature (hard to execute in all cases though). What blows me away is the backing they have- Khosla, Bezos and Benihoff! That has got to be the most incredible investment partner team I’ve seen so far in any small healthcare IT startup.

September 2010 Update: ZocDoc is now in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington D.C. too.

September 2011 Update: ZocDoc raised another $75M in Series C, bringing their total to a unbelievable $95M. It now officially the Healthcare IT startup with most adrenaline.

April 2012 Update: Heard about Zeel, that does the same thing as ZocDoc, but for alternative healthcare services.

October 2013 Update: Whoa! Zeel now only shows massage therapy scheduling. I guess the previous focus was too broad (or the mass market really cares about getting massages coordinated.. ahem.. privately)


AmericanWellLogoWhile the conventionalists argue otherwise, there is some truth to the fact that plenty of health conditions can be taken care of without actually seeing the patient in-person. Based on that assumption, AmericanWell offers an interactive service that lets patients talk to a physician in real time, anytime.

The service went live in January this year and initially focusing on Hawaii. The basic ‘interactive consultation’ uses two-way video conferencing, audio and secure text chat. It’s a step-up from the usual definition of a ‘e-visit’ which are mostly asynchronous text-based communication. Patients join for a fee, as I understand (what frustrated me was that I couldn’t find how much the fee was. I would have expected that to be extremely obvious!). Physicians sign up and make themselves available in aggregated pools of their respective discipline, which in turn are tapped into by patient demand.

So will the health plans pay for this? Until now they had signed up only two customers- the Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans in Hawaii and Minnesota. Last month, United Health Group, the largest private health insurer in the U.S., said it would begin deploying American Well’s platform across its huge network of more than 70 million members.

The concept has some viability for sure. But like anything else, it remains to be seen how well it can permeate through the tough, unyielding US healthcare system. I’m sure we’ll see many more startups with similar approaches soon.

Americanwell-com Howitworks


organizedwisdomlogo1OrganizedWisdom describes itself as the first human-powered, doctor-guided search service for health. What the site promises to provide are noise-free, simple but organized search pages that list relevant information on health topics. Its a crowdsourcing model at heart- these pages are essentially hand-crafted search results aggregated by OrganizedWisdom Guides and Physician Reviewers (eligible volunteers) who get paid $2 to $4 for each approved ‘WisdomCard‘. Given thier start in late 2006, their content coverage seems significant. I liked the easy signup for RSS/Twitter updates on a particular topic, related WisdomCards, RequestWisdom functionality.

Their business model is advertising, where interested companies can push their ads on specific WisdomCards that are most relevant to their target audience. With an average 40K visitors per month, I wonder how that model is working out for them.

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