doctor

Over the past few years, Palo Alto-based HealthTap has been trying to become one of the leading players in the healthcare app scene. Last year it acquired doctor Q&A site Avvo Health, and last spring it raised a $24 million Series B. Today, the startup is announcing its latest development, a new app called Talk To Docs.

HealthTap on its own is a worthwhile project. In essence, its goal is to create a WebMD-like database of questions that are answered by vetted physicians. If a question is unanswered, a user can submit it, and then doctors from around the country will provide an answer within hours. These answers can then be reviewed by other doctors who frequently add their own second opinions.

I always saw HealthTap’s app as an answer to that shitty generic form on WebMD where you put in your symptoms and somehow always had a terminal disease. And, according to Gutman, HealthTap has a very stable user base with several million uniques a month (although, he calls uniques “customers”).

Talk To Docs is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as HealthTap but with a new feature. The app is voice-controlled and allows people to simply open the app and speak their questions and receive an audio response. HealthTap’s founder and CEO Ron Gutman explained to me that he sees Talk To Docs giving more people access to HealthTap’s immense database of questions — especially those who are visually impaired.

Of course, the question has to be asked: Why make an entirely new app? This is the slightly hazy part to me. While voice controls are quite useful, especially for a health app, it seems a bit strange that this should be an entirely new application to the HealthTap program.

When I first met with Gutman a few months ago, he explained that he saw HealthTap’s primary objective as “connecting patients with physicians.” It seems that the best way to do this would be to build an all-in-one healthcare app with myriad features. Instead, HealthTap now has its primary app, and this secondary Talk To Docs program. It’s just a bit odd.

When I questioned him about this during my Talk To Docs briefing, Gutman explained that Talk To Docs is an offspring of HealthTap’s project lab called HealthTap Labs. This is a company-wide pilot program where HealthTap’s employees formulate ideas for new projects and then “do some research, perform some surveys, and go from there.”

Gutman explained to me that after consulting with user reviews and responses, many voiced a desire for a voice-activated program. So Talk To Docs was given to HealthTap’s engineers and developers, who began working with semantic technology to refine the app’s ability to perceive questions and build a stable technology that can truly gauge user intent. They then streamlined the app design around the sole use case of asking a question and getting an answer, with none of the other bells and whistles of the original app.

All of this was his roundabout way of saying that Talk To Docs is a noteworthy second project that merits being a standalone app. I’m still unsure.

Either way, my hope (and expectation) is that HealthTap will continue to improve its legacy application, especially as it grows as a peer review platform for physicians. Gutman told me that there are currently 50,000 doctors using the app.

Until then, we’ll just have to see how many people want to Siri their health questions.