Few Web sites try to be comprehensive resources for both physicians and consumers. But WebMD.com aims to serve both audiences, and it hits the mark with a recently revamped site.
The company, Healtheon/Web MD, has become one of the first to build online bridges connecting doctors and consumers with the rest of the health-care industry. About 15% of doctors in the United States are already registered users of WebMD.com, according to site managers. Some use it to verify a patient's insurance coverage or to obtain referrals and authorization in participating health plans, all of which can be done far more quickly than through more traditional avenues such as by mail or telephone.
And with federal legislation requiring that everyone who holds or transmits medical information--claim forms, bills, medical records, lab reports--use the same format by early 2002, the WebMD site is encouraging consumers, doctors and insurance companies to post data and conduct business on the site. The site has already entered into partnerships with companies to provide electronic claims processing and other clinical and business transactions online.
If confidentiality is maintained as promised, even many Internet skeptics may support the site's goal: saving us time and money with faster insurance claim processing and online access to individual contact information, health histories and medical records.
So what can WebMD do for you now?
Sure it provides news, sections that focus on specific illnesses, chat rooms, and health topics A to Z like other top consumer health sites. But this is a site that keeps on giving.
Perhaps one of my favorite features is Health-E-Meters. Overdid it with dessert? The Dessert Wizard will tell you how much exercise will make up for it. There are also ways to calculate ovulation dates, your child's adult height and your ideal heart rate for exercising.
I'm also a big fan of the WebMD daily news broadcast. This program gives you a brief audio and video look at the top medical news of the day. You'll need a video player, but the site offers options for different connection speeds and players.
Want to talk with others about a health concern? The "Member to Member" section has easy registration and message boards on more than 100 topics, including weekly input from health professionals on some.
Who's Behind It: Healtheon/WebMD is the company, and its staff includes board-certified physicians and award-winning journalists with advanced degrees. You can check out the site's ethical guidelines, editorial and advertising policies and staff and advisor credentials in "Our Credentials."
The site's writers research mainstream news stories but provide additional background on the issues. They also often write the same story for two different audiences: health professionals and consumers.
The Look: Pretty basic. It's not quite as inviting, or graphically appealing, as some of its competitors. For example, the photographs on the home page of the Sports & Fitness Store are a bit harsh and strange looking.
Getting Around: From the home page, http://www.webmd.com, which features a top news story, you can easily select the button to enter the consumer site. (Your other options are for doctors, nurses and office managers.) From there the choices are clearly identified in buttons on the left. Simple enough.
But you don't know how extensive a section is until you click on it. For example, Medical Library includes information on prescription and herbal remedies, clinical trials, a lab test guide and Patient Demos--colorful diagrams and brief explanations of major conditions like asthma and depression. I found the herbal remedies for "reflux" to be more comprehensive than the ones listed on a top alternative health site.
Want to zero in on something quickly? Then try the site's impressive search engine. It allows you to narrow or expand your search as you wish, to the whole site, the medical news section or any of the other sections. You can also modify by time period.
In the Works: Although it takes some initial effort on your end to input the information, the personal health record is a great feature. In the not-too-distant future, the program will enable you to connect that information with your physician and pharmacist.
Just imagine this. You go to get a prescription refilled, give the pharmacist your PIN number and your record is automatically updated to include the new prescription information. And the site will even send you a reminder to refill.
Need to schedule an appointment with your physician? If he or she participates, you can go online and see when appointments are available and schedule yours.
WebMD will also launch a sports and fitness section at the end of this month.
Ads and Sponsors: As with most other health care dot-coms, you'll find a fair share of advertisements and sponsored content. But the "sponsored content" sections are clearly identified and the editorial staff review the information.
Just don't judge WebMD too quickly. I started out lukewarm--thinking it was just one of the same old health care sites, but the more I explored, the more impressed I became. And if it can help get our nation's health care insurance companies, doctors and consumers all singing off the same sheet of music, the site will remain at the top of my list for a long time.
Marla Bolotsky is managing editor and director of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your Health Online runs the first and third Mondays of every month. Cathy K. Purcell contributed to this article.