iMedix combines health search and community — but does neither well

(UPDATED: See below.)For all the fuss over “Health 2.0″ companies that hope to revolutionize the U.S. medical system by tapping the bottom-up information-sharing capabilities of the Web, the unfortunate fact is that many of them are busily piling into business areas that are already seriously overcrowded. Worse, many seem to have no business model at all. iMedix, a new site hoping to draw users into a community where they can share information about their medical conditions, illustrates both of these tendencies.

For starters, iMedix aims to stake out a position in both health-related search and patient-community building, neither of which is exactly a new idea. The Health 2.0 Wiki lists 11 different healthcare-community sites — a conservative count, as there are several others, including iMedix, it hasn’t yet rated — at least seven of which do much the same thing iMedix intends to do. These range from broad patient communities like DailyStrength and Inspire to communities focused on diseases such as diabetes and psychological disorders.

Online health search sites are even more common, running the gamut from Google’s health directory and Microsoft’s HealthVault to portal sites like WebMD and Healthline to human-organized sites such as Organized Wisdom.

The upshot of all this is that anyone hoping to make a splash in these areas had better have built one hell of a better mousetrap — which, of course, is exactly what iMedix claims to have done. Essentially, the site aims to put users in immediate touch with others who share similar medical or health interests, allowing them to chat in real time or send personal messages back and forth. It then aims to tap this community to improve its parallel health-info search service, inviting users to rate the sites returned by each search with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

imedix-screenshot-2.gifAll of which is fine in broad outline — it’s the execution that leaves something to be desired. The iMedix opening screen is a fairly bare-bones affair (click on the image at left for a larger screenshot), offering a search bar and a list of “getting started” community options for finding your iMedix “friends,” seeing who’s online, and checking messages. It’s certainly a different approach from the crowd-the-page-until-it-groans tack that some online-health sites take, but information-packed it’s not.

imedix-screenshot-people.gifThe meat of the site lies in its online community, which users are encouraged to join by creating a profile, choosing an avatar and inputting their medical interests and any other personal information they care to share. A “People” page shows an array of other users and their profiles, each of which gives you the opportunity to initiate conversations and trade information. The effect, though, is a bit unsettling — it’s like looking at a wall of mugshots, all representing individuals pleading with you to chat with them or send them messages.

Of course, the moment you sign up, you’re up on the wall as well, unless you explicitly choose to change your setting to “offline” or “invisible.” The exposure can be immediate — within minutes of establishing my profile, I’d already received a message from a self-described Israeli biotechnology student who wanted to tell me all about a new “business initiative” that sounded suspiciously like a weight-loss scheme. Unlike other community sites, there are no online forums or any other way to take in or share info with others in a group — here, it’s all one-on-one. Whether this sort of thing works for others is a matter of individual preference, but it’s a little creepy for my taste.

iMedix is also fairly insistent about getting you to input as much personal information as possible. A progress bar at the top of the screen measures the “completeness” of your profile, and the site frequently asks if you’d like to add more information to your profile — for instance, after completing a search on some topic. Of course, this is all pseudonymous, but I can’t help wondering whehter people are really going to want to let their personal health interests, coupled with their age and location, hang out for everyone to see.

imedix-screenshot-search-fabry.gifThe site’s search function (see screenshot at left) has a few interesting gimmicks, most notably an autocomplete function that’s surprisingly good at filling out complex medical terms. The quality of search results, at least on rarer conditions, however, leaves something to be desired. I looked up Fabry disease, a rare congenital disorder, and the first entry returned was this almost information-free page. Google, by contrast, popped up a helpful resource page on the condition from the National Institutes of Health. The search function doesn’t seem to cope particularly well with symptoms, either — a search for “stabbing chest pain” returned a pair of forum posts from other sites instead of anything helpful. Supposedly user input will help hone the search results, but there’s little evidence so far that it’s had much effect.

Which is, perhaps, a little unfair of me, since iMedix only officially launched on Dec. 10. It’s entirely possible that the community features will prove wildly popular and the search results will skyrocket in quality. We’ll have to see, but so far, the hype over the site — such as its nomination for a “best new startup” award in the Crunchies — seems premature. Among other things, I found it odd that despite having what iMedix co-founder Iri Amirav told me were “thousands of users,” the site never displayed more than a dozen as being online at any given time.

Actually, the more I think about it, the stranger this site seems. In effect, iMedix users have only two sources of information — the intermittently useful search function and individual conversations with other users. Now, some of these people may be great resources — I didn’t have the time to chat with them to find out. The effect, though, is to give the site a conspicuously information-deprived feel. Some of this may simply reflect the fact that iMedix was founded by two Internet entrepreneurs with no medical or healthcare background at all. The company does claim to have an advisory board consisting of “strategic investors, successful internet entrepreneurs, information retrieval specialists, artificial intelligence professors and medical experts,” but it’s not exactly encouraging to see the medical experts listed last there.

The other mystery about iMedix is exactly how it plans to make money. Amirav says the site is exploring options for advertising — it already runs a few inconspicuous Google Adsense ads — but to call his plan “vague” would be an insult to vague plans. (It amounts to something like: Online health is a big business that’s growing quickly, so we’ll build out the site and advertisers will flock to us.) Of course, advertisers might be interested in aggregated data from iMedix users, but Amirav was adamant that the site will never share any user information with anyone, and implied that would include anonymized, aggregated data. That’s certainly a plus from the user perspective, assuming iMedix actually holds the line there, but it’s not at all clear how you sell advertising against an undefined, monolithic community.

All that said, iMedix is still very much in flux, and will undoubtedly continue to grow and change in response to feedback as long as its funding holds out. It’s certainly different, although whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

UPDATE: So iMedix won a Crunchie for “best new startup.” I’m still not a fan, at least in its current incarnation.