Healthline drags an insurer into Health 2.0

The Web-based health-management tools collectively known as Health 2.0 generally suffer from a major shortcoming, in that they typically put the onus on individuals to learn about them and put them to use. But a few startups are taking an interesting new tack by getting health insurers to offer their Health 2.0 services to their customers — an important development, although one that may present a whole new set of problems.

Last week I wrote about American Well, which plans to offer Web-based video chats with doctors via insurers, although it doesn’t appear to have struck any such partnerships yet. So one of the first companies to actually take this plunge with a major insurer appears to be the health-focused search company Healthline Networks, which today is announcing that Aetna, one of the largest health insurers in the country, will be offering a new service to its members using Healthline technology. Dubbed Aetna SmartSource, the service will be integrated into Aetna’s existing online members-only Web site in order to provide “personalized” responses to various health-related queries. (Over time, that is; the service is only available to Aetna’s 30,000 employees so far, and the insurer only plans to roll it out to select employer-based plans over the course of the year.)

In practice, that means any Aetna member who logs onto the insurers site will be offered the same kinds of searches Healthline offers on its own site, such as queries related to disease, symptoms, medications or treatments. At Aetna, however, the results will be matched against a patient’s own medical history, at least as it’s recorded in the insurer’s claims information, in order to provide what Aetna and Healthline think are the most “relevant” results. (Click on any of the following images, which I’ve cut-and-pasted from a slideshow, for larger versions. They’re still kind of fuzzy, I’m afraid.)

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The interface itself is intriguing enough, and the personalization touches that are visible in a demo seem moderately useful. Searching for doctors, for instance, will specifically turn up those in the Aetna network that are also geographically close to the patient, while a “costs” tab will outline what various medical treatments or drugs would cost at particular medical centers or clinics.

SmartSource also includes a fascinating-looking disease “health map” that visually links all the important topics you might want to explore about a particular condition, from diagnosis to treatment and prevention:

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It’s a lot harder to say, though, exactly how well this sort of personalization will work when searching on disease symptoms or medications — or to what uses the information will be put by the insurer itself.

Healthline CEO West Shell acknowledges, for instance, that Aetna will know exactly what its members are searching for, although he dismisses concerns that it might be tempted to put the information to nefarious use, such as seeking ways to divest itself of members whose searches suggest they might be worried about developing a serious — and expensive-to-treat — condition. (Dropping coverage this way is generally illegal, although you don’t have to look far to find stories of insurers that have done something very similar, even without knowledge of their members’ search history.)

The other problem, of course, is that many of these tools don’t appear to be available to anyone without health insurance — or even anyone who doesn’t like the idea of their insurer peering over their shoulder while they search. That will probably change over time, of course — Healthline says it would be happy to make its tools available as applications for personal health-record services from the likes of Microsoft and Google. So while it’s interesting to see a major insurer like Aetna, which appears to cover 36.7 million people, stick its toe in the Health 2.0 waters, I suspect these sorts of services still have a long way to go.

See our earlier coverage of Healthline here.