HealthTap Offerings Track the Evolution of Health Care

Posted on August 15, 2014 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Health care evolves more quickly in the minds of the most visionary reformers than in real health care practices. But we are definitely entering on a new age:

  • Patients (or consumers, or whatever you want to call them–no good term has yet been developed for all of us regular people who want better lives) will make more of their own decisions and participate in health care.
  • Behavior change will be driven by immediate interventions into everyday life, and health care advice will be available instantly on demand instead of waiting for an annual visit to the doctor. Health care will be an integrated into life activities, not a distinct activity performed by a professional on a passive recipient.
  • Patient information will no longer be fragmented among the various health care providers with whom the patient comes in contact, but will be centralized with the patients themselves, integrated and able to support intelligent decision-making.
  • Mobile devices will be intimately entwined with daily behavior, able to provide instant feedback and nudges toward healthy alternatives.

I have seen this evolution in action over several years at HealthTap, a fascinating company that ties together more than 10 million patients a month and more than 62,000 doctors. I interviewed the charismatic founder, Ron Gutman, back in 2011 before they had even opened their virtual doors. At that time, I felt intrigued but considered them just a kind of social network tying together doctors and patients.

Gutman’s goals for health care were far greater than this, however, and he has resolutely added ratings, analytics, and other features to his service over the years. Most recently, HealthTap has moved from what I consider a social network to a health maintenance tool with continuous intervention into daily life–a tool that puts public health and patient empowerment at the top of its priorities. And it may go even farther–moving from seeking help on illness to promoting health, which Gutman describes simply and winningly as “feeling good.”

The center of the offering is a personal health record. Plenty of other organizations offer this, most famously Apple’s HealthKit. HealthTap’s personal health record is unique in supporting the service’s search feature, where patients can search for advice and get results tailored specifically to their age, medical conditions, etc.–not just the generic results one gets from a search engine. It also ties into HealthTap’s new services, including real time virtual consults with doctors.

Sample update from HealthTap

Gutman is by no means interested in maintaining a walled garden for his users; he is looking for ways to integrate with other offerings such as HealthKit and with the electronic health records used by health providers. He says, “The only entity that will win the game is the one that adds the most value to the user.”

Other new features tied in to the HealthTap services include:

  • A recommendation system for apps that can improve health and well-being. The apps are rated by the doctors within the HealthTap system, must be in Apple App Store or Google Play, and must be approved by the FDA (unless they are part of the large, new category of apps that the FDA has chosen not to regulate).
  • Off-the-shelf checklists to help patients manage medication, keep track of healthy behaviors, etc. As part of HealthTap Prime, a concierge service ($99 per year for the first person and $10 for each additional family member), the user can get personalized checklists from doctors, as well.
  • With the concierge service, subscribers also have the opportunity to directly contact a doctor any time, 24/7, on all popular mobile platforms, using live video, voice, and text.
  • The “Get Help” module in the HealthTap app provides useful checklists through all mobile devices, and even Android wearables. Patients can get reminders, useful links to relevant content, and other content pushed to their devices, at a pace they choose.

Some of these features–such as the recommended apps and personalized checklists–go beyond advice and constitute a type of treatment that is subject to legal liability. HealthTap has covered all its bases insuring doctors have insurance against mistakes.

The numbers show that HealthTap is a big community; comments received from Gutman about patients who say they’ve saved their lives show that it is an effective one. I think the choices they’ve made are insightful and illustrate the changes all health care institutions will have to make in order to stay relevant in the twenty-first century.