HealthOnline, a Columbia start-up seeking to carve out a niche in the competitive world of Internet health information, announced a deal yesterday to provide an "Internet channel" for Sentara Healthcare, a regional health system in southeastern Virginia.
What HealthOnline provides for clients such as Sentara is a customized World Wide Web site with health information, physician referrals, chat rooms and other features.
And Sentara is the kind of client HealthOnline is seeking. Based in Hampton and Newport News, Va., Sentara has six hospitals, 10 nursing homes, 38 physician practices and a variety of other health services.
The number of national health information Web sites is growing, such as the one founded by Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. surgeon general. But Fred McCall-Perez, president of Health Online, said, "We go into a large health care system and say, 'This isn't about Dr. Koop or about international branding, this is about your brand.'"
"Consumers really prefer information coming from their own doctor, their own health system."
And hospitals and health systems believe their own Web sites will bring them patients, McCall-Perez said. Sentara's site will allow patients to schedule doctor appointments online.
"It's a modern marketing technique for a healthcare system," he said. "Last year's Yellow Pages and billboard dollars are going into this."
Sentara is the eighth client to sign on, none of them in Maryland, according to McCall-Perez. The year-old company has 68 employees, most of them in Columbia, and plans to add 50 more in the next three months, he said.
In addition to the elaborate "Internet channels" for regional health systems, McCall-Perez said, HealthOnline is about to launch another product, a simpler, less customized Web site for smaller hospitals. The company also is offering patient health record and referral services for participating physicians, although it considers the Web sites its main product.
While health Web sites have proliferated, they have struggled to find the right business model to generate revenue. AmericasDoctor.com, based in Owings Mills, has a focus on recruiting patients for clinical trials. Other online health companies concentrate on transactions, such as billing and referrals.
"There's a continuing question about the viability of content-only sites," said Scott L. Sherman, assistant dean for business development at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Hopkins provides general medical information for a company called InteliHealth, which in turn licenses it to a variety of Web sites. Combining content with Web design, Sherman said, could be "a new play -- sort of content-plus."
Several of the large national health Web companies, such as Healtheon/Web MD and dr.koop. com, provide some customization for hospitals and physicians, he said.
McCall-Perez has been HealthOnline's president for six months. After outgrowing offices in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, the company moved to Columbia three months ago because of the work force and proximity to airports.