America Online for health care

Will Steve Case's pitch to create an electronic home for personal health information take off?

Despite all the buzz that’s been associated with it, it may be some time before the highly touted Revolution Health portal finds its footing in a health care market that so far has been slow to embrace Web-based services. So it’s probably a good thing that its founder has some experience waiting.

After Steve Case and partners launched America Online in 1989, it took the company five years to reel in its first million subscribers. In the next five years, AOL’s base soared to 20 million. So when Case — who reportedly plunked down $500 million of his own money to start Revolution Health — says he’s committed to his new venture for the long run, you tend to believe him.

Case is chairman and chief executive officer of the company, which he launched in March 2005 as an umbrella group to create consumer-based health products and services. The company released a beta version of the Web portal RevolutionHealth.com at the beginning of last year and formally launched the site April 19. It is the first major development for the group, and Case refers to it as the cornerstone of the company’s efforts to revolutionize health care.

Revolution Health also bought CarePages.com, a fast growing Web-based community that provides online support for people with various health interests. That site was already getting more than 30 million page views a month.

RevolutionHealth.com offers consumers access to health information and treatment advice culled from a variety of sources, including leading medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and Harvard Health Publications. Most of the information is free.

It also features tools such as a symptom checker, risk-based health assessments, and an online directory of doctors, specialists and hospitals that patients can add to and rate.

The site was built around the idea that health needs are best met by having a medical home — a close relationship with a primary care physician who will act as a clearinghouse for all their medical needs.

‘Enhanced experiences’
The company has conducted a great deal of research on what patients are looking for from their health care providers, said Dr. Jeffrey Gruen, Revolution Health’s chief medical officer. The soaring popularity of social-
networking sites such as MySpace has confirmed the results of that research.

“People are looking for an enhanced experience with their providers,” he said. “We think that health care will always be delivered mainly through interaction [between doctor and patient] at the physician’s office, and we want to make that interaction even more valuable with our tools.”

To achieve that goal, Revolution Health developed what it calls physician health pages. Doctors create online repositories for all of their best medical information, updating the pages as needed. They can then send patients looking for specific medical information to those pages, Gruen said.

“It takes around 30 minutes for any physician to create this stuff,” he said. “Physicians need simple solutions that don’t change the way they release their own information, and this way they can simply refer their patients to their own health pages.”

Personal health records
RevolutionHealth.com users can create their own personal health records, where they can store the results of all their activity on the Web site. They can also print the records or e-mail them to their physicians.

Taken as a whole, many health organizations believe the approach is worthwhile. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) announced at the Web site’s launch that it is partnering with Revolution Health for future online projects.

AAFP sees the concept of a medical home as having particular promise. “We have research data that shows the quality of care that people receive is worse when they jump around [between providers] and don’t have a medical home,” said Dr. Rick Kellerman, a family physician in Wichita, Kan., and AAFP’s president. “It’s best if they have someone who knows them and who has their information, and then helps coordinate such things as specialist consultation or other care if they need it.”

At the same time, he said, people increasingly rely on the Web for their health information, so it benefits organizations like AAFP to become more active online.

Home wreckers
However, Case and Revolution Health have their share of critics. Dr. Ed Fotsch, CEO of Medem, which provides online communication services that link physicians and hospitals with their patients, said it’s hard to find anything fresh in Revolution Health’s approach.

For example, he said, WebMD tried to establish an online ranking of doctors and hospitals and ultimately pulled the project because people weren’t interested.

“People can do a lot of what Revolution Health is proposing through online search,” Fotsch said. “And do they really have better content than other sites like WebMD? They are really late to the game with this.”

On the other hand, David Merritt, project director of the Center for Health Transformation, a health care think tank founded by Newt Gingrich, said he believes Revolution Health represents a key development in the evolution of health care.

“There is a competitive marketplace out there, and you could just as easily see the likes of Google search combined with personal health records that could have a play in this,” he said. “And the Web itself represents only one possible future. No one can yet claim they’ve cracked the code about what works in technology and medicine.”

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