Earlydoc launches to save you from Web-enabled hypochondria

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 15, 2012

From The News Desk

If there's anything worse than being a hypochondriac, it's living with one. My fiancee, the "Grey's Anatomy" and WebMD addict that she is, insists that every new mole indicates a stage-3 metastatic melanoma (skin cancer, for those of you lucky enough to not know), and every headache or fever is proof-perfect that she is going to die in the near future. Fortunately, her grandmother is a nurse, and is able to call bullshit on most (read: all) of her unfounded fears.

Other people don't have that luxury. They might feel a little under the weather and decide to Google their symptoms -- "just in case" -- and, before you know it, what you thought was the common cold is actually a rare virus that hasn't seen a documented case in a thousand years. What would you do at that point, not go to the doctor's office? Of course not! You've got a virus that needs taking care of!

Unfortunately, many of these "cases" turn out to be a waste of the doctor's time and the patient's money that end with "Yeah, you probably shouldn't come back in for a while." Marieke Schoutsen wanted to change that, so she founded Earlydoc, a service that is launching today that tries to tell people whether or not they should actually bother their physician.

"The main reason I started [Earlydoc] is that I feel that online medical advice or online medical information is a bit broken at the moment," Schoutsen says. "The advice or the information that you find is just generic. We would get the same information. For something that's as personal as medical information that's wrong."

Schoutsen also says that a lot of the information made available to the potentially-ill is "unnecessarily scary," prompting around 1.3 billion unnecessary doctor visits each year. These services are providing faulty, generic, and "scary" information, but when the coming generation has been raised to believe that everything on the Internet is true, and the speed of turning to a computer instead of calling a doctor is hard to ignore, this online prognosis gathering is here to stay.

Instead of perpetuating this fear-mongering and churning out cheap, generic information, Earlydoc asks users to describe their symptoms and then lets them know whether or not they should get in touch with a professional. Earlydoc is working closely with physicians to determine what warrants a phone call or office visit, and is constantly looking for feedback to make its suggestions more accurate.

Of course, asking users to provide their own symptoms can lead to its own problems. I gave Earlydoc a test run before my call with Schoutsen, and I was told that the symptoms of my headache warrant a call to my doctor. (Obviously the only rational conclusion is that I have brain cancer.) When I told Schoutsen this, she laughed and said that most people, when they're using the service for the first time, don't actually provide the symptoms that they're currently experiencing and tend to over-exaggerate.

Despite the doom and gloom tint to users' responses, Earlydoc is a data powerhouse. The company recognizes that this data can not only help users by providing more accurate results, but can also be used to provide a revenue stream. Selling its massive amounts of data would allow Earlydoc to keep its consumer-facing product free and openly available to as many people as possible, but the company faces one problem – figuring out how to sell that data.

Schoutsen says that the service may partner with insurance companies in the US to provide patient data, one area where big companies are always happy to pay up. Insurance companies are "a very natural partner of ours," Schoutsen says, "because we work with their customers to save them unneeded doctor visits, and that saves [the insurance companies] money."

Nothing is set in stone, however, and Earlydoc is still working out where its revenues will come from. Schoutsen says that different countries' health care policies make it hard to find a clear-cut answer, but that the company is tossing around a few possible ideas. For now, Earlydoc is focused on building its product and trying to figure out the best way to use its massive amounts of user-supplied data.

Schouster says that the company is working to create a medical chart with well-designed, easy-to-understand graphs and data points. Every time someone interfaces with Earlydoc their chart might automatically update itself, making it easier to explain what's wrong and communicate with a physician. This would allow Earlydoc to help users figure out whether or not they should be talking to a doctor and then make it easier for that communication to take place once it's deemed necessary.

"We want to make it a very social thing," Schoutsen says. I laugh and ask, nervously, if she means that it would be easier to share and communicate with doctors. "Of course!" she says. "We're not going to post medical updates to all of your friends!"

That's a relief.