Is User Generated Always Useful?
2007 is shaping up to be the battle of the health Web sites.
Nearly a decade after WebMD went online, advertising dollars are finally migrating to the Web in enough quantity that investors such as Time Warner and the Carlyle Group think health Web sites are a hot investment. So even though WebMD has entered the pop culture lexicon--as in when a character on "Law & Order" quips, "What? Did you read that on WebMD?"--the online encyclopedia of illness info has attracted competitors, including America Online co-founder Steve Case.
Case's Revolution Health Group yesterday launched a "preview" of Revolutionhealth.com, sort of a soft launch, more public than a Beta site but not as ready for prime time as an official one.
It's still early days for this site and whether it survives will depend a lot on whether it provides accurate, reliable information consumers can use.
Revolutionhealth.com aims to be very Web 2.0, so it relies in good measure on, as Case puts it, "the wisdom of crowds." That means user-generated ratings of doctors, hospitals, and even treatments.
The idea is that once millions of users have posted their comments, the sum of all their thoughts will pan out into something useful.
I asked Robert Krughoff, president of the Center for the Study of Sciences to cruise Revolutionhealth.com and share his first impressions.
Why Krughoff? Well, in addition to starting Washington Consumers' Checkbook, Krughoff is a widely respected expert when it comes to the challenge of evaluating health care for average consumers. One of the central hurdles we all face when making health care choices is that independent, reliable information is hard to come by. We choose doctors with even less data than we choose restaurants with. We ask around and we don't even have published reviews to rely on.
Krughoff's group knows how hard this challenge is as well. It has published its own guides to doctors and hospitals since the 1970s. Krughoff is a stickler about sample size and sources of data, so it should be no surprise that he has some doubts about the Web 2.0 approach.
"I'm not sure their strategy is going to get them something people can use," he said of Revolutionhealth.com.
He pointed out that when it comes to user-generated feedback on doctors, it's very hard to get a decent sample size especially via passive means such as asking people to post comments because, let's face it, no doctor has a million patients. And registration on the Revolution site is easy enough, he said, that someone could post positive comments about himself or herself--or bad-mouth a competitor--under five different e-mail addresses.
Regarding user comments about treatments, Krughoff worried that that approach is too "fuzzy" and might not contain sufficient clinical information to be reliable. After all, it's hard to evaluate what someone says about a treatment without knowing more about the person's symptoms and prior treatments.
Finally, when it comes to hospitals, he said there is other data out there that is potentially more useful than consumer comments, quantitative data such as death rates, infection rates and complication rates. The federal government collects that information and has been striving to make it user-friendly.
Insurance companies are another source of harder data on docs and hospitals. They have access to all that claims data, after all, and providers are just beginning to offer their members some of that wisdom. Consumer Reports also has a Web site that offers pricing information on prescription and generic drugs that is easy to use. You might want to check out those sources in addition to user-generated comments on sites such as Revolutionhealth.com.
Moving beyond the wisdom of crowds, both Revolution Health and WebMD are offering services such as appointment scheduling and the ability to create a personal health record. Krughoff said these sounded like good ideas.
Revolution has also started what Case calls the "AAA" of health care, a membership service where people can telephone for help with insurance disputes, appointment scheduling and answers to health questions. Krughoff didn't get a chance to evaluate those.
Of course, this space is all about collective and individual wisdom, so if you've tried any of these sites or services, don't hold back. We want all the reviews we can get.
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