American Well: Finally, the online doctor will see you now

Today hospitals face enormous financial pressure. Much like the U.S. Postal Service, which lost profitable shipping business to FedEx and got stuck with costly letter delivery, hospitals’ best customers are being cherry-picked away by specialist cardiologists or orthopedists with niche practices, leaving them with unprofitable, uninsured consumers in emergency rooms. Meanwhile the aging boomer population is a wealth of potential patients — but they avoid the inner-city hospital locations and go get their knee surgery at a boutique in the suburbs.

This is all a bit comical, since the solution is so easy. U.S. hospitals still have the best doctors in the world, but patients simply can’t find them. Studies such as Pew show with hard data that 113 million Americans search online for health information each year, and most (66%) begin at a search engine. Hospitals not advertising online and paying for Google keywords are missing more than two-thirds of their potential audience. Smart specialists, meanwhile, are piling on: Google “bariatrics” and you’ll see vast competition among niche surgeons who are now wise to the internet game.

The online doctor will see you now

One company stepping into the void is American Well, a service that gives consumers remote access to healthcare over the internet. Consumers visit a web site, punch in their condition, and can pick from a list of doctors to have an immediate web video conference on their home computer. The service has numerous benefits: no appointments are needed; the system will forward the recommendation to your regular primary care physician via fax, email or mail; American Well even records each session, so you can go back through your health records to recall what the doctor recommended.

Virtual home visits may be more attractive to patients than seeing an actual doctor. If a man wants to discuss erectile dysfunction, or a woman a urinary tract infection, a little squirming is involved confessing the issue to a doctor. But a face in a moving web pane, why, that feels a bit detached — creating a comforting illusion of privacy.

More hospitals could do this. The cost to e-serve all patients might be abnormally high, but highest-contribution service lines such as bariatrics, cardio, or ortho could fit nicely. In the perfect marketing world hospitals would use a broad presence on Google with thousands of paid keywords to pull potential patients toward online video chats, where prospects could be quickly screened and scheduled for appointments.

In an age where half the planet has cell phones and every senior citizen is familiar with a PC, hospitals that don’t allow patients to find them online do more than a disservice to the public. They’re also hurting their bottom line.

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