Anatomy of a Health Site

Online health sites are in dire need of a booster shot, according to industry experts.

In the last few weeks alone, the once-revered drkoop.com has sought venture capital funds while laying off hundreds of employees to keep its head above water. In the meantime, the losses at Healtheon/WebMD keep widening.

Building a healthier business model would help to cure what ails these sites, many industry observers said.

At present, many of the health-related sites are devoted to content but not commerce, according to Eric Brown, research director of healthcare commerce at Forrester Research Inc. , an Internet research firm.

“A standalone health content site based on advertising and sponsorship is fundamentally a bankrupt idea,” noted Brown said. “People are interested in reviewing health content when they need to, but they don’t make it a home site, they don’t bookmark it and, generally, they don’t visit a health site when they are feeling healthy.”

A recently released study conducted by the Cyber Dialogue, an analytical eCRM company, cites that 40.9 million U.S. adults, or 54 percent of the online adult population, currently uses the Internet for healthcare.

Yet, Mark Bard, director of health practices, noted that online providers need to know who these visitors are and infuse their sites with pertinent data to boost revenue-building opportunities.

“Many health-related sites have failed because they did not understand their users and did not take advantage of marketing opportunities,” Bard said. “Are you making things easier for the end user?

“For instance, if sites like drkoop.com knew a visitor had diabetes, they could make efforts at clinical trials recruiting,” he said. “Despite the critical mass of health consumers online, health services online require coordination among all participants in the health system — payers, providers and patients.”

Targeting a particular segment can have a high payoff. Health sites catering to communities with the same conditions will have a much higher proposition for visitors.

“Aiming at specific health-related issues can lead to repeat visits and potential sales,” said Steve Shaha, research director, healthcare research and advisory services for Gartner Group , a provider of research and analysis about technology.

“Till now, promoters have not been able to demonstrate value to achieve a viable revenue stream by focusing on content alone,” he said. “For instance, you can have a site that concentrates on chronic diseases, such as diabetes or stress-related or cardiac problems.

“By providing consumers with the ongoing information they need to manage their health, the Web content becomes a means for disease management, rather than just hits, by establishing an ongoing interaction between a patient and information sponsor managing or assisting with their care.”

Partnering with larger providers in similar fields is another means of infusing the category. The opportunity for long-term success in healthcare is by connecting to the real value of healthcare providers and related industries.

“Tying in consumers with online drug stores or negotiating discounts with a healthcare providers or checking the online rates of HMO providers or coordinating care for the elderly takes a lot of work to get up and running on,” noted Brown of Forrester. “But in the long run it will supplement today’s offerings.”

Shaha of Gartner Group noted that content will always be needed for healthcare sites, but in the future the traditional dot-com operators may not be the people who provide it.

“Sites offering content for the general public at large will need to have content that is almost encyclopedic in t

erms of breadth and accessibility, a costly venture,” he said. “But time will bring dramatic changes to what is offered and by who. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, could truly benefit by working to strengthen relationships between physician and patient, and assist physicians and clinical partners in identify critical situations through alerts and to assist care givers in making optimal decisions.

“It’s not just content that constitutes value,” he added. “It is creating a network of information and connectivity that incorporates a retail pharmacy, real inventory, real warehouse and real e-based relations with manufacturers. Physicians want one-step processing of paperwork and documentation, and consumers want one-stop shopping for diagnosis and treatment. This type of model is win-win for all involved.”

While current times are gloomy, the long-term prognosis is good and improved working models are currently on the operating table.

“Health information is a primary draw for consumers,” said Bard of Cyber Dialogue. “However, the final stage in the evolution of ehealth will be Health eCare management, which requires going beyond the basic advantages of connecting payers, providers and patients for routine administrative functions and using the Internet to extend the outreach and clinical capabilities of healthcare professionals.

“The biggest roadblock to true connectivity to date has been the lack of ‘wired’ physicians and healthcare professionals,” he said. “As a growing number of physicians go online, consumers will have more opportunities to interact with their physicians, physicians assistants, nurses or office staff.”

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