Hyping a digital health startup

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2013/10/03/technology/bits03-healthtap/bits03-healthtap-tmagArticle.jpg
image via NY Times digital blog

HealthTap is a digital health app and website. It’s a useful way to get health and fitness information that is tailored to your interests. You can even get your specific questions answered by medical experts. I use it myself. In an effort to attract attention and even more users, however, HealthTap appears to have hyped or at least exaggerated its success.

HealthTap works by recruiting physicians (more than 50,000 participate) to answer questions posed by subscribers for free. The subscribers do not pay for the service. I’m not quite sure what their business model is, actually. The rationale for doctors to participate is that the physicians will be recognized (“thanked” in HealthTap parlance), their online reputation will be enhanced, and real life patients will come to them as a result.

After an interaction where a user asks a question and receives a response from a doctor, HealthTap asks the user to thank the doctor or HealthTap and prompts the user for more information. The extra information apparently includes responding with a click to a question like, “This answer saved my life.”

HealthTap keeps a record of all of the positive responses to the “saved my life” prompt and issued a press release when the tally got to 10,000. Nothing wrong with any of that, except there is no way to prove if the app/website/reply really did save a particular life.

As one physician commenter in the New York times article said, “after my third “This saved my life,” I investigated. It was for recommending antifungals for jock itch. Nice pat on the back, but lifesaving? Not!”

Although some of the the lifesaving claims may be legitimate, the touting of “10,000 lives saved so far” on HealthTap’s website seems vaguely desperate and hyped – not what I expect from a serious medical app.

HealthTap also provides a disclaimer on its website and app: “HealthTap does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.” The disclaimer is obviously there to avoid being treated as an FDA-regulated medical application. Of course, the FDA (and malpractice attorneys) will have the final say on that status. I don’t know how asking a specific medical question and having an answer provided by a physician avoids becoming medical advice.

HealthTap is competing with big players in the health information field. WebMD is the 800 pound gorilla and granddaddy of health information sites. I suppose the executives at HealthTap feel they have to be aggressive in order to create awareness and get users and doctors to take notice. Unfortunately, their real utility and service has been tainted by excessive marketing, in my opinion.

HealthTap appears to be a well-funded Silicon Valley startup. Its investors include luminaries like Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, Vinod Khosla, Esther Dyson, and more.

Postscript:  I removed the HealthTap app from my mobile phone because I thought the notifications it provided were too frequent and intrusive. I still receive an email every few days on the subjects I told HealthTap were important to me.

Takeaways: Yes, you need to be aggressive in marketing your startup. There is a lot of competition for mind share among similar startups all over the world, no matter how unique you believe your company/product/service to be.

No, you should not make up or exaggerate claims about your product. Perhaps it can be excused as puffery or marketing hype but healthcare companies are held to a higher standard than consumer products like beer or body wash.

Read more:

An App That Saved 10,000 Lives – NYTimes.com.

HealthTap.com