The Mess Known as Online Healthcare

By 2005, 88.5 million adults will use the Internet to find health information, shop for health products and communicate with affiliated payors and providers through online channels, according to research by Cyber Dialogue.

Cyber Dialogue’s study “The Future of e-Health” found the consumer demand for healthcare content has already reached critical mass — an estimated 36.7 million adults — and will continue to grow at roughly twice the rate of the overall online population. Health-related e-commerce has already taken flight with 11 million consumers shopping for health and beauty products, and Cyber Dialogue predicts this number will grow to more than 55 million by 2005. Purchasing vitamins, supplements, and personal health products marks a significant change in online consumer buying behavior, which has typically revolved around the purchase of books, travel, and computer hardware/software.

“Consumers seeking health information will increasingly rely on the Internet to purchase products after researching them online,” said Mark Bard, a director in Cyber Dialogue’s Health Practice and author of the study. “It’s critical for health content companies to understand how to transition their customer traffic and relationships into sales revenue by either building commerce capabilities internally or through strategic partnerships on and offline.”

The study also identified key growth segments that will impact the future of e-Health, as well as areas that may inhibit growth. Among the reasons for continued growth are increased online penetration among the elderly (65+ years); health insurance companies aggressively migrating their customers to the Web; health providers urging patients to use the Web for education, insurance, and prescription drug orders; employees conducting health insurance transactions online; and new parents relying on the Web for health/parenting information. Among the possible culprits for declining growth in the market are a lack of detailed content; privacy concerns regarding the submission and transmission of health information online; delays in businesses implementing their business-to-business strategies; and reluctance of doctors/providers to embrace the Web as a tool for business and communication with other professionals and patients

“Understanding the primary and secondary drivers fueling future growth is critical to understanding why and when the online health market will expand over the next five years,” Bard said. “Initial growth was fueled by consumers looking for healthcare content and now market players need to understand the roles commerce, connectivity and eventually e-care management services will play for the millions of e-Health consumers coming online.”

A survey by Gomez Advisors found the plethora of health-related content online may be one of the biggest disadvantages.

As of today, there are close to 20,000 health sites on the Internet and more than a dozen full-service online drugstores,” said David Steele. M.D., senior healthcare analyst at Gomez. “This number continues to grow at an alarming rate, leaving consumers overwhelmed with the abundance of information out there and inundated with e-health options.”

Of the 12,000-plus individuals surveyed by Gomez, 77 percent indicated they have previously searched online for health information. But 30 percent of the consumers were indifferent when asked which health site they would use if restricted to only one — indicating a wide open marketing opportunity.

The Gomez survey also found the top motivation driving consumers to access health information online is when a loved one was diagnosed with a medical condition, indicating the majority of health information seekers go online to help others. The findings also suggest the majority of these online consumers are most concerned with the credibility of health information on the Internet and the trustworthiness of a site. In fact, 85 percent rated high credibility as the single most important attribute when selecting a health site.

Privacy is also an important factor during an online health consumer’s site selection.

“Consumers are still very hesitant to submit their personal health information online,” said Steele. “Sixty-one percent of consumers indicated they are hesitant to provide their health information over the Internet out of fear that others will gain unauthorized access. Our findings suggest that further educating consumers about privacy issues will alleviate some of these fears.”

The Gomez survey also found what consumers really want is for health sites to provide convenience and interactivity. Of those polled, 41 percent said the ability to email their own doctor the most valuable feature they’d like to see on an online health site. Other site features important to consumers include the ability to obtain lab results online, and convenient tools that allow consumers to verify health insurance eligibility and track reimbursements.

On the e-commerce side of the e-healthcare business, US consumers are expected to spend $10 billion on health-related products online in 2004, according to Jupiter Communications. While Jupiter found that nearly half (45 percent) of online consumers access the Internet for health information, they remain skeptical about making health-related purchases. The consumers told Jupiter it was more convenient to pick up healthcare items when doing other shopping offline, and also expressed concerns about returns.

Healthcare content sites, in particular, will be reliant on online advertising dollars in order to make money. According to Jupiter, the online advertising market in the healthcare space will grow from $100 million in 1999 to a still-modest $700 million by 2004. For this reason, Jupiter predicts consolidation in the future of the e-health market.

Cyber Dialogue’s findings are based on in-depth interviews with 2,700 online and offline adults. Gomez Advisors polled 12,000 online consumers, as well as e-health professionals in its survey, and Jupiter Communications surveyed 1,600 online consumers.

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