The creation of a unified EHR (electronic health record) database has been a frustratingly elusive goal for the health care IT industry. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) once attempted to tie the fragmented market together in 2008 with Google Health, but gave up by 2011 after the service failed to achieve mass adoption.
There's a new approach that a few companies have been experimenting with, however: using the social networking model popularized by Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD.DL) to share patient records online.
Could social networking be the answer that the industry has been looking for, or will it fail just as Google Health did?
Linking doctors and patient records together online
Doximity is a fast growing social network for physicians, with approximately 30% of U.S. doctors using the service. The site, which has 200,000 members and grew its user base by 20% year-on-year in 2012, resembles LinkedIn but is designed exclusively for physicians to share patient data in a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant manner. Word of mouth is fueling the network's growth, with 80% of new users coming from doctor-to-doctor referrals.
Doximity's CEO, Jeff Tangney, is no stranger to medical technology. The first company he founded, Epocrates, went public in 2011 and was acquired by athenahealth (NASDAQ:ATHN) earlier this year for $293 million. Epocrates is now one of the most popular medical reference apps in America.
Although Doximity's approach appears unique, LinkedIn already has 15.9 million (40% active) registered health care professionals worldwide. There are dozens of dedicated LinkedIn groups for medical professionals tailored to their specialties and interests. It is estimated that 18% of active health care professionals on LinkedIn have participated in these groups.
The only thing that LinkedIn lacks is a HIPAA-compliant way to share patient records across the network. If LinkedIn incorporates that feature, then smaller services like Doximity could suddenly be rendered obsolete.
When hashtags meet health care
Whereas Doximity is used for professional networking, Personiform's Project Medyear is a network for patients to actively connect with other patients and physicians. Project Medyear uses two key features of Twitter and Google Plus -- hashtags and circles, respectively -- to allow patients to actively share their own health records across the Internet.
Project Medyear users can hashtag their health problems or symptoms to find patients with similar problems. They can also share their full health records with strangers with the same disease. Project Medyear, which intends to launch early next year, uses Google Plus' Circles feature to create CareRings, which allows users to choose who they share the information with. The site also has photo sharing capabilities -- a private place to share health-related photos that they wouldn't otherwise share on Facebook. Physicians can also join the network, allowing patients to share their full medical records with them.
By taking Doximity's business model one step further and extending it to patients, Project Medyear could become the first living, evolving social EHR system.
Project Medyear has also shown Google that its Google Plus Circles feature could be a great tool for health care. There has also been speculation that with the upcoming release of Google Glass, Google could get back into the health care game. I believe that if Google were to take another run at health care IT, it wouldn't be via the fragmented market of EHRs, but through dedicated health care apps instead -- where Circles and Google Plus sharing features could be more fully utilized.
Why haven't WebMD and athenahealth stepped up yet?
Project Medyear's approach is a stark contrast to WebMD's (NASDAQ:WBMD) main portal, which is a top-down search tool for symptoms, ailments, and drugs. WebMD users can reach out to other uses via discussion forums, but the message boards are mostly anonymous. Advice received there cannot be considered professional, and worse could be misinformed or misleading.
It makes sense for WebMD to create a medical social network to unite professionals and patients with verified patient records under a credible umbrella. Considering that WebMD's health portal currently has 125.5 million users and another 2 million health care professionals are using its medical reference app, Medscape, it has all the resources it needs to become the "Facebook of Healthcare."
Athenahealth, which recently added 4,000 health care providers via its new deal with Ascension Health, is also in a strong position to offer a social networking solution for sharing patient records. Its popular Epocrates app, which the company intends to integrate with its athenaClinicals EHR software, has more than a million users and is currently used by 50% of medical professionals in America.
The Foolish bottom line
In addition to Linkedin, Google, WebMD, and athenahealth, existing EHR players with a strong mobile footprint -- such as General Electric, Greenway, and Allscripts -- could build social networks upon their existing EHR programs to reach more users. As Facebook has demonstrated, social media's networking effect is a very potent search tool, and over time could be comparable to the traditional top-down spider search used by Google.
In health care IT, we are standing at a similar crossroads -- Google Health has already demonstrated that forcibly uniting health records doesn't work, so perhaps getting patients and physicians to voluntarily share their records across social networks could be the answer.