For most health consumers, Healthwise is the biggest brand they’ve never heard of. Even though Healthwise content is accessed over a 110 million times a year, it is accessed most often through online health publishers, health plans, hospitals and disease management companies. Even though this company is over 30 years old, they continue to find innovative new ways to support patient decision making. I spoke recently with Healthwise Founder, Don Kemper.
Kevin Kruse: Don, why did you start Healthwise. It was back in the 70s right?
Don Kemper: That’s right 1975. During the time of the Vietnam war, I became an officer with the Commissioned Corps of the US public health service. One day I went to a talk by Vern Wilson, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services. He said “The greatest untapped resource in healthcare was the patient”. That just took hold of me and I decided that that was something I wanted to work on.
I had a baby at home at the time and somebody gave me the book by Doctor Spock on raising children. I started promoting the idea that we needed a Dr. Spock type book for the whole family that would guide people in how to take care of themselves… this led to the creation of Healthwise in 1975 and then later the Healthwise Handbook.
Kruse: Has the Healthwise mission changed since then?
Kemper: Well the mission hasn’t changed but the media changes. The mission has always been to help people make better health decisions. We did that initially through both the Healthwise handbook and workshop. So we had a focus on education early on, just wasn’t as scalable as it is now on the Web.
Kruse: Healthwise online content is syndicated by most of the major health portals, how did you become an innovator with web technologies?
Kemper: We have a wind sculpture outside our building that’s devoted to our relentless innovation. The base of it is solidly in the ground as is our mission which never changes, but that sculpture is always in motion and it means we are continually trying to find new ways to help people make better health decisions.
Kruse: Speaking of innovations, are you embracing social media?
Kemper: We certainly very supportive of the whole 2.0 movement and the social networks around health. We think there are three sources of information that people need. They need to have information from their doctors, information that has a good solid evidence base, and then they need to hear from other people who have been in similar situations.
The piece that we focus on is the information that is really documented by medical research. We are really trying to find the right ways to reach out to the 2.0 group, so that we can get those two sources of information collaborating on a more regular basis and I think that’s going to happen in many different ways.
Kruse: Tell me more about your “virtual conversations.”
Kemper: Many people learn best through personal interaction with other individuals and we also know that psychologists have developed a number of techniques like motivational interviewing.
We can now model these interactive conversations by using software developed by Jellyvision, the makers of the computer game called “You Don’t Know Jack”
So instead of having the very obnoxious Jack run the game show we use a very supportive voice and individual called Shelley that guides the person through this interactive conversation.
One type of conversation is around medical gaps mostly in chronic illness. For example the importance of the hemoglobin A1c test for monitoring and controlling your diabetes or the importance of aspirin to a person at risk for heart disease.
The other type of conversation is around wellness. We don’t have a prescription exercise program, but we have the conversation that will help you make an exercise program work for you. It’s like having a twenty minute conversation with a psychologist around what is it going to take for you to be successful in your fitness program.
Kruse: Shifting to some business questions, how many employees do you have now? And you’re setup as a non-profit?
Kemper: We are a not-for-profit with 120 employees.
One advantage of being non profit is that nobody can come buy us, so that’s good. The not-for-profit approach allows us to play with everybody now because they aren’t concerned that their main competitor might buy us or take us over. We are now used by all ten of the ten largest health plans.
Kruse: What are you future plans for Healthwise?
Kemper: Our next big initiative that we are currently looking for funding and partners for is taking on the whole issue of late life care. We want to use interactive conversation technology to engage elders and their family care givers. We have identified 26 critical moments in late life care ranging from the early days of just helping prevent falls to deciding when you stop driving, all the way to when do you need to move out of your home, when do you need to put in your advance directives, etc.
We think this will be a highly impactful program that will address what has got to be one of the biggest problems in American medicine; the program is called “Elder Talks.” I think it is going to be a one of our major legacies.
Kemper: Also we have 154 patient decision aids which is by far more than anybody else in the world. These guide the person through clinical treatment decisions like do I need the surgery, do I need this drug, do I need this test, etc. We’ve had these for quite a while, but we are releasing a whole new generation of them. The same topics but reformatted into a much more interactive and richer user experience. Last year we had about 10 million uses of these decision aids, so that they are making a big difference.
Kruse: Great contributions, Don. Thank you.
Kemper: You bet.