When they were looking to create the iconic WebMD Web site in the late 90s, the Internet was full of health sites making wild claims, its founding Chief Operating Officer said.
“ ‘Drink liquid copper to cure breast cancer’ and things like that,” said Michael Heekin, who was also a founding board member. “One of the motivations for starting this online destination for clinically validated health information was (that). It really was the Wild West.”
He spoke Wednesday at Georgia Regents University as part of its Innovation Management Speaker Series. Some of what the company learned in his 3½ years before leaving in fall 2000 are probably unique to that era of Internet business but others can be applied to business in general, Heekin said.
“If you have two competing companies and one has a better quality product and better technology and the other has better distribution, it’s a fact of business life that the distribution will almost always trump the quality and higher technology,” he said.
And when you are seeking investors, getting a strategic partner to invest in you as opposed to one with only a financial interest is usually cheaper, Heekin said.
“If there is a reason why investing in you helps their business as well as yours, you are going to get a better deal,” he said.
The company learned a lot about what patients and physicians want but it also saw its role as larger than just an information or community support portal. They saw a way to “facilitate the transaction of the business of health care,” he said. “We were providing connectivity among the hospital, doctor, lab, pharmacy and patients. That wasn’t complete connectivity. It’s still not complete connectivity. But that was our vision.”
That vision was codified under the federal Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which will require hospitals and doctors to switch to electronic health records or face a financial penalty, and those systems will eventually link up in regional and national networks with other providers.
Many are grumbling about the cost of creating those systems and Heekin acknowledges those systems “are and remain quite expensive,” he said. “The hope always was and it still is that the Internet could be the great leveler and things could be less expensive. That hasn’t totally played out. I still think, though, that the future will show that the systems can be simplified and more cheaply deployed.”