Whenever a medical question arises, most people will automatically turn to Google to try and find the answer. However, there is a much better alternative, according to California based health startup, HealthTap.

Last year the Palo Alto company created a platform which connected over 12,000 doctors throughout the United States that were ready and willing to provide written answers to questions about medical issues at no cost. This network of medical professionals is available online or via a mobile app.

CEO and co-founder of HealthTap, Ron Gutman, explained that with the significant updates to the service announced recently, including the ability to pay a small fee to privately message a specific specialist, they were “bringing the house call back.”

Ron Gutman has been involved in the consumer health industry for a number of years in a variety of roles. As a graduate student he was responsible for a health and well-bring program for employees being implemented by his university. He also has prior experience as CEO and founder of Wellsphere, a health 2.0 site.

Gutman has long since understood that health care is moving to mobile devices and the internet. People want the convenience of consulting with a real person wherever they are, from the home to the coffee shop. He said that HealthTap’s aim is to be the go-to source for immediately available and reliable health information, and to do this through real doctors and specialists.

“DocScore” helps find the right doctor

The significant changes being made to the system mean app users can search 112 medical specialists, filtering by speciality, availability and location if they wish. For a charge of $9.99 they can then send a targeted and secure private message to the specialist of their choice, including the ability to attach images, lab tests, and any other information they wish to send so the doctor has the fullest picture possible of the patient’s condition.

The advantage of the new feature for the specialists is the ability to offer promo codes for new and existing patients.

Users also retain the free option of putting their question to the general network of doctors to find an answer if they don’t wish to pay.

With research showing the average co-pay to be $29, following a wait of 20 days according to a 2009 survey of family physicians, HealthTap’s service looks to be a very attractive alternative to a traditional visit to the doctor’s office.

Medical Information is HealthTap’s realm, not online medicine

Providing better access to quality health information is the main intention of HealthTap according to Ron Gutman. The network of doctors do not diagnose conditions, nor do they prescribe medication through the system, unlike the Ring-a-doc service. This approach should allay the concerns of doctors about liability issues, as well as enable the service to operate in every state.

As well as the new private messaging feature, let’s look at a few of the other new features that are available:
– The “DocScore” is essentially a ranking algorithm assigned by HealthTap. It’s primarily based on information about the doctor that’s publicly available, such as which medical school they attended, how many years they’ve been in practice, and their residency. Other data points, as well as reviews by their fellow doctors, are taken into consideration. The review system is implemented by way of feedback from other doctors whenever one of them responds to the questions of anonymous patients.

– Users are now able to follow doctors, so they can easily see future comments made by them. This enables patients to keep up with relevant information concerning their issues and/or any other topics they’re interested in.

– HealthTap now provides a secure digital health file, enabling users to store documents like test results, vaccination, and other records, even if the information was not actually exchanged between them and one of the doctors.