Online patient appointment system gathers momentum

Online search and appointment booking service 1stAvailable.com.au has added its name to this growing market, signing up more than 1000 practitioners since launching at Easter.

While there are several other online appointment booking services available in Australia – including WA-based GP search site HealthEngine and practice-specific booking services such as Clinic Connect – 1stAvailable's founder and CEO Rick Luu said his site was different in its ability to refine searches to best suit the consumer's preferred time and location.

“Consumers are really discerning these days, and what you can find is if you were to go on the internet and do a Google search, Google constantly refines its algorithms through search engine optimisation to try to provide the pages that are most relevant to what you are looking for,” he said.

“Our search engine does that. We are trying to provide the patient with the most relevant search. When you go to our website, we serve up actual appointments that fit the criteria. As a consumer, if I am looking for a dentist in the Sydney CBD today at two o'clock, I will go in and say that I am looking for a dentist in the Sydney CBD today at two o'clock and I am willing to travel 5km.

“What our system does is look for appointments at around about two o'clock and serve back those appointments in chronological order. It will match the appointment to the user. The other sites, what they do when you say I am looking for a dentist in Sydney, they will provide all of the subscribers and show all of their appointments and you choose which one suits you. They don't refine them for you.”

Dr Luu, a former dentist, said most similar services tend to concentrate on one kind of healthcare provider, particularly GPs, but 1stAvailable's plan is to include as many practitioners as possible, including dentists and physiotherapists.

“The healthcare industry is far more than just doctors and dentists and we are looking at this as a multiple cross-vertical platform including allied health and the alternative therapies,” Dr Luu said.

“We want a site where as a consumer, for anything to do with health, you just have to remember one site. A lot of our competitors are very heavily focused on one vertical, mostly GPs. Our issue with that is that as a consumer, a site that has got only one vertical is not very compelling. If I as a patient need to find a physiotherapist, I now need to go to another site.”

The site also lists complementary therapy practitioners such as homeopaths and naturopaths, something that traditional medical practitioners might find a bit unpalatable. Dr Luu said that was a concern for the company when it was designing its business model, but he believes it is not his role to impose restrictions on who can and can't be called a healthcare practitioner.

“Our role is to connect people with the practitioner,” he said. “We are living in an era where connectivity is throughout every single industry except healthcare. We still use a very rudimentary method of connecting with our patients and it is changing dramatically.

“We are going to list all of these verticals and it's up to the consumer to use what is relevant. GPs and dentists are interesting … they do have concerns that there are alternative therapies that may or may not have gone through the scientific rigour that traditional medicine has, but at the same token we don't impose or say whether or not we are endorsing such. We are providing access.”

Dr Luu first had the idea for the site in 2007, when he was practising as a dentist and frustrated at not being able to connect with patients. It was only a year later that perhaps the best-known doctor search site, the US-based Zocdoc, was launched. Dr Luu is not keen on this model, which he says rival sites have often copied, as it has been designed for the American system by a businessman rather than a healthcare professional.

“Zocdoc has been modelled along the lines of the online businesses that say if you make it very attractive for the consumer, when you get enough traffic and enough drive the healthcare professionals will have to come on board because they'll see the value in advertising.

“And in Zocdoc they have consumer ratings, so the consumer can actually rate the practitioner – they can go in there and say 'great bedside manner, terrible clinical experience, too expensive' … And because of the way they do their search display, each practice gets a profile, so once you get to a certain size you take up a certain amount of real estate. As a practitioner newly signing on, you get lost in the maze and you end up on page three or four or five. Each practice will take up a certain amount of real estate on screen.”

1stAvailable has signed up well-known IT businessman Klaus Bartosch, who worked for some time for Hostworks, the online infrastructure and application outsourcing company which designed sites for such online powerhouses as ninemsn, Ticketek, Wotif, Seek, realestate.com.au and Fairfax Digital. Bartosch joined as executive chairman last year. It is a public unlisted company that has raised several millions in seed money from investors, Dr Luu said.

1stAvailable is currently in negotiations with the major healthcare practice management software companies to integrate the site into their systems. At the moment it requires manual input from practice staff, but the idea is to have it integrate directly into the practitioner's electronic appointment book.

“We already have written agreements to work with the practice management software companies to integrate it. We just launched the service two or three months ago and building the platform technology is quite difficult, but we have built the integration aspect and we have written agreements to go ahead, but the details haven't yet been finalised in contracts.”

Posted in Australian eHealth

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