The Assumption About Doctors, with Sean Mehra from HealthTap

With the fifth anniversary of the ACA fast approaching, the legislation has managed to get more Americans covered, force insurance companies to cut costs, and drive hospitals to provide better quality. However, this has come at a cost with potentially dangerous consequences: Doctors are being asked to give better care, while getting paid less and being forced to deal with cumbersome technologies that consume more of their precious and already depleted time.

The good news is that, just in time, we’re seeing a flurry of health care technologies that hold the biggest hope for fixing our health care system. But the promise of these new developments is coupled with an equally enormous challenge: How can fast-paced technologies help doctors (who are naturally risk averse) provide better care?

Having made the transition from a medical career and into technology myself, this question has been at the center of my journey in the tech startup world.  Most of the Health IT entrepreneurs I have talked to, consulted with, or heard speak seem to share a common assumption: Doctors would be willing to adopt a solution only if it saves them either money or time. This article begs to differ.

At the last Health 2.0 Fall Conference, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Mehra, head of product at HealthTap, a digital health company with a popular website and several apps, hosting a whopping 65,000 doctors, ready to answer any medical question for free! Sean is motivated by building scalable technologies that have a large health care impact, and he shared some of his secrets with me about how HealthTap does just that.

As Head of Product, he’s constantly thinking about the user experience, and not just for patients.  His vision of what a product needs to do revolves equally around empathizing with the doctor, a perspective that truly resonated with my own past experiences.

Here are some of the key points he made:

Doctors love and seek intrinsic rewards 

My day as a transplant surgery intern started at 4.30 a.m. Patient rounds, several surgeries, changing cannulas, and endless vital data measurements all seemed to blend into the high intensity environment that is Tufts Medical Center.

I would be 16 hours into my shift before I had a moment to wonder why I was doing all this work for such measly pay. But as soon as the thought entered my head, I’d remember a patient who received a new kidney through a transplant I assisted, or I’d receive kind words of thanks from a family member after I checked in on his daughter, or I’d receive a smile from the nurse in gratitude for helping out.

Though cliché, these little things are what made that 4:30 alarm worth it! 

Patients virtually ‘Thank’ doctors who respond to their questions, or if they stumble upon a previous answer that was helpful

Patients virtually ‘Thank’ doctors who respond to their questions, or if they stumble upon a previous answer that was helpful

“You can’t forget that doctors became doctors for a reason. They deserve gratitude, which is very limited in their day-to-day practice.” Sean emphasized this point as he explained why doctors get so engaged with HealthTap as they receive more and more virtual ‘Thank Yous” (for the answers, tips and other content they provide for the service) that come from different patients in the U.S. and abroad.

“We aim to earn doctors’ trust and get them engaged with HealthTap as an entity and as a free service. Once we built HealthTap as a trusted brand for doctors and showed them the way they could impact patients everywhere by sharing their knowledge, we were able to later expand the platform to allow doctors to use it to deliver paid services to patients. HealthTap could not have been built the other way around.  If we had hired doctors to create content for us, they’d view participation as work, rather than as a way to help others, learn form peers, and augment their daily experience as practitioners.”

“We realized quickly that monetary rewards are not the only or best motivator for doctors.  Not every doctor actually runs his or her own practice, and some of them don’t even have an opportunity to see patients on a daily basis – but they have a tremendous amount of knowledge to contribute and the capacity to help many people. What we learned is that the best and most engagement you can create is to engage doctors with the actual real-life rewards of helping others and receiving thanks.”

Collegiality is Key

Doctors can endorse each other’s advice on HealthTap

Doctors can endorse each other’s advice on HealthTap

Even though we were each other’s bitter competitors in medical school, doctors learn to depend on and validate each other early in their careers. Business mainly comes from referrals, and that builds on reputation, which ultimately brings in more patients.

HealthTap recognizes the important role doctors can play, both in terms of educating, as well as helping each other in the business of medicine.  As Sean noted: “ Doctors use HealthTap because it helps them build their reputation and it’s fun. ‘This Harvard physician from the east coast is agreeing with my answers on a certain topic.’ This feeling is powerful for physicians.”  This system of peer review also helps HealthTap validate the content on the service.

The company’s vision is to spread the benefits of HealthTap to billions of people globally, and Sean explained how collegiality would help achieve this: “When it comes to physicians, there is a lot of collegiality across borders. The engagement you can build for doctors across borders, who understand the power of learning from and being recognized by respected peers, is powerful”.

Data that is actionable

I had a very tense relationship with the legacy EMR system we had at Tufts 5 years ago. The reason wasn’t because there was no data, but because there was too much. I had to walk through a cryptic maze of information to get to what I was looking for, and it bugged the hell out of me. Now I can only assume this amount of data has grown exponentially.

Patients can already share data from Apple HealthKit or Googlefit directly with their doctor during virtual appointments

Patients can already share data from Apple HealthKit or Googlefit directly with their doctor during virtual appointments

Sean understands the problem of an abundance of data, and recognizes that this problem is an increasing issue for consumers as well – especially those engaged with their health. “You have this whole world of wearables pouring data into your smartphone, but this data is not very actionable. Are you going to spend 5 of the 10 precious minutes of your doctor’s appointment showing him graphs on your phone? Probably not.”

“We recognize a tremendous value in integrating that into HealthTap, so that doctors can quickly access that data in one place, and use it to understand you better – for example, that the reason your glucose went up is because you were eating this and your activity was that – so that doctors can provide recommendations based on that data quickly, conveniently, and concisely made available to them.”

In that sense, Healthtap provides an actual utility to biosensors. Since doctors are plugged into the system already, Healthtap opens the door to meaningful interpretation of this data and helps users find the signal in between all the noise.

How does this affect the future of Health Care?

In his hallmark book Creative Destruction of Medicine, Dr. Eric Topol explains that in light of a projected 2025 19% gap of US physicians, the rise of ‘digital doctors of the future’ will come to solve the problem, albeit slowly and gradually.

HealthTap is not just providing a new disruptive health care service, but is helping propel that movement forward by creating a product that doctors love. HealthTap understands that doctors seek intrinsic rewards based on what really matters to them (helping others and gaining peer recognition), that facilitating collegiality can spur both initial and lasting engagement with a service, and that by giving doctors actionable data they can provide patients with the kind of care that’s personalized and that truly capitalizes on the doctor’s expertise.

By keeping the three main points above in mind, as HealthTap has, entrepreneurs can build more products in the industry lead technologies to solving some of health care’s most pressing issues.

In the second part of this article, I delve into how technology is changing patient-physician engagement and communication through the eyes of three different entrepreneurs with three different technologies: Telemedicine, Genetics and Machine-Based Learning.


Omar is a physician, writer and data analyst. After realizing the potential of exponential technologies to reshape the inefficiencies of healthcare, he left medicine and moved to San Francisco to immerse himself within the network of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, while working on technology projects of his own. Omar frequently writes for Health 2.0 News while consulting major organizations with the Healthcare Practice of Clarity Solution Group. View all posts by OMAR SHAKER →

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