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Web health sites harness power of social networks
Patients learn from patients 'A significant advance in what sites are doing'

By V. Dion Haynes
Monday, October 19, 2009

In fall 2007, during her 12th week of pregnancy, Garance Genicot and her husband, Shub Debgupta, received worrisome news from the doctor: A preliminary test showed there was a strong possibility that she would deliver a baby with Down syndrome.

What now? Thus began their search to get answers, with little idea of where to turn. Genicot would eventually have a healthy baby girl. But the process they went through inspired Debgupta to start a business aimed at helping other expectant parents make better decisions about health issues.

Debgupta, a former senior director at the Corporate Executive Board in Arlington, is launching a Web site called WiserTogether (http://wisertogether.com) that allows expectant parents to gauge the experiences of other people in their age group and circumstances who face a range of pregnancy-related issues, including abdominal and back pain, gestational diabetes and hypertension, mood swings and urinary tract infection.

WiserTogether is among several online health sites that began in or have a presence in the Washington area, including HealthCentral, Everyday Health, Revolution Health and Inspire. With the health-care reform debate centered in the nation's capital, experts say they think more sites will start up in the region.

Online health sites have been booming in the past five years, experts say, driven by the popularity of social networking and patients' desire to become more empowered in the increasingly complex medical field. Many of the sites have recently experienced heavy traffic from users seeking information on the H1N1 virus. Officials of the Health 2.0 Conference, which tracks the industry, estimate that the number of such sites climbed to nearly 500 from about 35 four years ago.

The sites generally have evolved from the encyclopedic-styled WebMD, becoming more interactive and case-study- oriented, such as Inspire, PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether.

"You're seeing right now an expansion phase of the relatively early part of the technology cycle," said Matthew Holt, co-founder of the Health 2.0 Conference. "There's a significant advance in what sites are doing."

Inspire, a health-focused social-networking site consisting of 130,000 members, was founded in McLean in 2005 and relocated to Princeton, N.J., in 2008. It partners with 70 associations that advocate for patients with various diseases. The members write entries sharing their health problems and experiences with treatment methods.

"People were talking in waiting rooms since the beginning of medicine. Now they're talking to each other online," said Brian Loew, chief executive of Inspire, adding that the site is nearing the break-even point. "This is not a substitute for the doctor-patient relationship, but it's valuable in its own right."

In general, such sites generate revenue by selling the research obtained from the members, minus their personal information, to health-care companies or by recruiting members for clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies. A few sell ads. Many sites have yet to make a profit.

But that has not deterred Debgupta, who recalls his own struggles getting health information.

To learn more about their baby's condition, he and his wife learned that they would have to choose one of two difficult options. She could undergo an invasive procedure that was highly accurate in determining the health of the baby but could spur a miscarriage. Or she could wait much later in the pregnancy for an ultrasound that was not risky, not invasive but much less conclusive.

"For the first two weeks, we were going back and forth between the two tests and not knowing what to do," said Genicot, an economics professor at Georgetown University.

"What we wanted to know is whether people share our risk tolerance level and what they did in the same situation," Debgupta said.

Genicot and Debgupta ultimately agreed to the invasive amniocentesis procedure and learned they would have a healthy baby. Their daughter, Sanae, was born in March 2008.

In August, Debgupta left his job heading the Benefits Roundtable at the Corporate Executive Board to work on the start-up full time. He now runs WiserTogether out of a cramped third-floor office he is subleasing in Georgetown. The site launched with $350,000 from Debgupta and four other investors, including his former boss at the Corporate Executive Board, Bob Proctor, who left the company last year. Although the site is free for users, Debgupta expects to earn revenue from $39 custom searches and paid subscriptions offering premium features.

Susannah Fox, associate director of Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project who follows the industry, said WiserTogether is entering a cluttered space with lots of sites devoted to pregnancy and babies, including What to Expect and BabyCenter. But she said the customized research might be useful.

"That definitely is different from the other sites," Fox said. "There's an appetite for individualized medical information, making sure you have the very latest research to make your decision."

Debgupta said that, based on demand, he may expand the site next year to offer data on infertility and cancer. "There is a slew of additional opportunities for this model," he said.

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