* Americasdoctors.com: Direct hit. On the diabetes community page the recall is featured in the top story, which goes on to analyze the issue and talk about treatment alternatives. Its drug encyclopedia listing, however, is not updated.
Now it is true that it's unfair to judge a site based on its performance on a single test, but we feel that a site's ability to handle such a recent, high-profile, possibly life-threatening piece of news about a common condition provides at least a snapshot of its competence. It also illuminates one of the primary challenges facing producers of online information. It's easy to license databases and news from outside sources and proclaim a site a "comprehensive information source"; it's another matter entirely to successfully anticipate why people might come to the site and deliver the material they are looking for.
Little Differs Among Most Medical Sites
Despite such differences, we found many similarities among the sites' offerings. All offer some sifting of health news. All have databases on conditions and treatments, drugs, alternative therapies and nutrition. All feature a selection of interactive tools like body-mass-index calculators, online health assessments, medical knowledge quizzes and more.
All offer discussion boards on medical topics (few of them particularly coherent, active or useful), live chats with medical experts and references to other places on the Web to get more information. All offer assurances that user privacy will be protected as much as possible and that advertising does not affect editorial material. Truth told, any of the sites can be accessed to gather useful information on most health topics.
But whether the sites will remain available in their current forms is another question. Nearly all of these sites were launched around the idea of "consumer empowerment"--that the Web could provide consumers with information that can help them manage their health and deal more knowledgeably with doctors, hospitals and the health care system. The business plan was for the sites to draw consumers to the site with useful information and make money by selling advertising, attracting sponsors and sharing in revenues from electronic commerce generated by visitors to the site. That plan has failed.
"Pure play health-content sites are dead," says health-site analyst Catherine Monaghan of Gomez Advisors, a Boston firm that tracks Web businesses. Operating the sites has become too expensive, and revenues from sponsorships and advertising have proved too small, to make this model work, she says. "Just about everybody is looking for a different business model."
One of the most intriguing is the plan by Healtheon/WebMD. In February, the Atlanta-based firm announced that it would buy OnHealth, a Seattle-based site that had become very successful at attracting female Web-health surfers; it leads most surveys of online health traffic.
By combining that audience with the more medically oriented followers of WebMD, Healtheon will draw more than six times as many visitors as its nearest competitor, Drkoop.com (according to statistics gathered by Media Metrix, a Web traffic measurement firm). This could provide the "critical mass" of users needed to make an electronic publishing plan financially successful.
But in Healtheon/WebMD's model, attracting health-seeking users is just one small part of its plan. Most of the firm's business is devoted to creating an electronic network linking doctors, patients, insurance companies, labs and others in the health care business. It has purchased companies that provide medical office management systems and billing operations, and intends to make most of its money in the world of back-office industrial automation. It hopes patients and doctors can communicate online while viewing the same records, that health insurers can track treatment online and that money among the various entities will flow through the Healtheon network. While Healtheon/WebMD has more than 5,000 employees, only about 100 work for its flagship consumer Web site.
Whether Healtheon can afford to run a top-flight Web site for consumers when it's making most of its money from back-office operations is an open question. Most of its competitors are working on simpler, less capital-intensive survival strategies.