This is a transcript of my recent podcast interview with Alijor CEO Allison Guimard.
David E. Williams: This is David Williams, co-founder of MedPharma Partners and author of The Health Business Blog. I am speaking today with Allison Guimard. She is CEO of online health care directory Alijor, which connects patients with physicians and other health care providers.
Allison, thanks for being with me today.
Allison Guimard: Thanks for having me David.
David: Allison, what is Alijor?
Allison: Alijor is an online health care community that is working to connect patients with various types of health care providers. One of the biggest things it is based on is enabling patients to search for a doctor based on cost.
David: How does somebody go about it? What is the experience like for a patient?
Allison: You visit Alijor.com and then enter your geographic area. We have quick links to click on. You will click on your geographic area and you will select the specialty that you are searching in. Then, it will basically organize all the data for you.
You are able to organize it from lowest price to highest price and so on. You are able to see the initial consultation cost, the follow up cost, and the procedure cost. In the very near future you will be able to organize it based on various types of procedures. So, you can be even more specific for various kinds of plastic surgery, for various kinds of dermatology and things like that.
The other experience we offer is that patients can go on and actually post their medical problems. If you are looking for back surgery you can go on and go to orthopedic surgery and type in that you have back problems and you are looking for a back surgeon. And then doctors can actually get on and respond to you and tell you their price. It is very consumer oriented, which is nice for patients.
David: One problem in health care is the lack of transparency on pricing. That sounds like something that you are addressing. There can also be questions where you don’t know exactly what you need before you go in. So, when you talk about the pricing information, how useful does it end up being for a patient? Or is the price often different or is it hard to figure out exactly what they need ahead of time?
Allison: It is a great question; a question we actually get a lot. We try to get doctors to give us their average price. For example, if you are going to get some sort of plastic surgery, it is going to vary based on the person and the patient and the issues they have. So, we try to get the doctors to consider their lowest and highest costs and then average it out so that patients know.
So yes, it can definitely vary, but in the end, it is pretty close is what we have been told.
David: When a patient posts their information it looks like they can put a basic message on there. Is there a structured questionnaire as well? What is your thinking behind what the patient posts?
Allison: It is pretty structured. You have to put your geographic area. You have to put your insurance and a couple other pieces of information. We actually provide a really good amount of space for people to insert anything they want to about their medical problems.
We have actually never had complaints about how much space there is to put information in. Some of our responses today are shorter based on the fact that this is a growing part of our website. But, I believe as patients realize, “Hey, we are actually getting a response from doctors here.” I think, they will put more and more information in.
So, it is structured. We give a good space of information for people to put anything and everything they want because patients don’t really get a chance to explain themselves today in health care.
David: You have doctors and other sorts of providers. What is the thinking in terms of going beyond physicians? Is it primarily weighted toward physicians or alternative or complementary care?
Allison: We definitely have more complementary care. The reason is that it is one of the things that is often not covered by insurance. We can always get prices from those kind of doctors. They are very used to it.
However, we are definitely expanding into more general practice internal medicine type of specialties, which is taking up some time. One day I would love to say “Hey, I have all the different kinds of specialties,” from general practice, dermatology, plastic surgery, to acupuncture on our site.
One of our other big goals is to eventually have hospitals on our site as well.
David: How would it work with a hospital?
Allison: What we think will happen is we will just be able to say, “Hey, listen. Here is our average price for heart surgery.” I am sure you have seen it on a couple sites now; they are actually doing this… And we will basically put it on our site and then they will be included, when a patient searches for a heart surgery.
David: And when you have a provider, whether a traditional provider or alternative or complementary therapy, do you go through some sort of verification or credentialing process before they go on the site? How do you know whom you are dealing with?
Allison: We really don’t at all. The only thing we ask is that they give their license information. And then, we encourage patients. We make a very big point to say, “Hey, you know, we have not verified this information. Make sure to go ahead and look up their license information. Go to their website and verify that it is a valid license and stuff like that.”
Just like if you go to really any other doctor you should take it upon yourself to do your due diligence and ensure that they really are a doctor and they have credentials and they are going to provide quality care.
David: What are you finding in terms of the geographic locations of your physicians and the patients that are coming on? It looks like you have a big group in the Bay Area, which I think is where you are based. But, what else are you finding?
Allison: We are very big in the Bay Area. And we are also very big in New York City; Miami, Florida; Dallas Texas; all the major markets in the US. That is where we are big. And we are still expanding into other areas. The major markets is where there are more doctors and where doctors are more willing to take part in things like this. So, we are definitely much larger in the cities like in Los Angeles, Boston, and places like that.
David: When you look at specialties like plastic surgery, where people are often shopping around for price and it is something that they are paying out of pocket, do you also have or are you considering having providers that are in other countries? Sort of a medical tourism angle?
Allison: Yes. Actually we do. We are slowly expanding into Canada and Mexico. And then I think, we will probably expand throughout Central and South America since that is a pretty big medical tourism place. Possibly into India and places like that. One of my employees is relocating to Central America to work on expanding into medical tourism in the next couple months, meeting with some people. I am really excited about that and I think it is going to be a big thing. We definitely are going to be expanding into other countries for medical tourism.
David: And are the visits that you are arranging or helping to facilitate or putting doctors and patients in touch about — are those all in-person visits or is there an element of electronic visits as well?
Allison: It is all in person. But, of course, if the patients and doctors want to just communicate through email and do it that way, they are more than welcome to. However, basically once they come to our site and email each other they really leave our system and it is up to them to communicate and set up appointments however they want to.
David: What is the way that you are financed and how are you hoping to make money, if that is the goal of this business?
Allison: Yes it is. We are basically angel funded. Our business model is that we will have an advertising system up in about two to three months that is going to enable providers to have a higher listing than other providers. We set up basically a pay per click model. That is how we will be bringing in revenue; through advertising and enabling doctors to have advertising on our site. We may go with some bigger companies, such as insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies who want to advertise. That is our plan for the next two to three months; to get that working and going.
David: At that point, will a provider still be able to list his or her services for free? Will they just get more favored treatment if they are advertising? Or will you have to pay for your listing?
Allison: No. They can list for free. You will just have favored treatment. You will basically have a little bit better look to your item. You will be a little bit higher if you are paying us. But, it will still be entirely free for both patients and doctors to use our site.
David: And what about the rating system that you have? I saw that there was an opportunity for people to rate their providers. How does that work and what are you expecting to come out of that?
Allison: That actually went up a little over a month ago and is slowly starting to be used. Basically, you go on and when you are asked about a doctor, or if you just know of a doctor, or you heard of a doctor through a friend, you can go on, go to the doctor’s profile, and basically just click from one to five stars, select how many stars you want to rate them, provide any feedback you want to provide. As we get more and more ratings we will develop some sort of rating score for that doctor.
A couple doctors have ratings, but it is definitely a growing service. Not everyone has used it yet.
David: Now, you have been in business for at least a couple of years. There are some websites that have emerged since then and there are some that have been on the scene for a while. I was just wondering how you think about positioning yourself relative to them.
I am thinking about sites like HealthGrades where people could see information about the quality or satisfaction of a doctor; American Well, which is going to be setting up to allow more immediate communication, Carol.com, which is also offering pricing information, or MedHelp where somebody can post information about their particular condition and then have a physician answer that for free. How do you think of yourself in that universe? Are there other companies that are relevant to think about as well?
Allison: There are a couple of things that are very different about Alijor. One of the biggest things is that we do provide email addresses for doctors. You can email doctors directly from our site, which is unusual for the other sites that you mentioned.
I think, one of the biggest things is the fact that we enable patients to post their information for free. They get to go on and post information and doctors can respond. I believe MedHelp enables them to post their information in more of a forum like atmosphere. And then other patients and consumers can respond. Doctors can respond too. But, ours is a little bit more directly tied to patients posting their problem and then doctors responding with a price.
The other big thing is that we enable doctors or ask them –almost require now– doctors to post their fees. A couple other sites do. A couple other sites have fees. You go on our site and at least 70 to 80 percent of the doctors on our site have their fees on the site. That is pretty exciting.
I know Health Grades, in order to even see fees for the doctors you have to purchase it I believe. It is not free. Also we have dentists and all kinds of alternative doctors, which other sites don’t have.
I think, the last, biggest thing I can point out is that every single doctor who is on our site is there voluntarily. We have contacted them, we have asked them if they wanted to be on and they have said yes. And they put their information on themselves. That is really pretty much the most exciting thing about our site; is that they are all there voluntarily.
David: Allison, what do you measure when you think about the success of the site? Are you measuring traffic or number of physicians? What are your key metrics and how are you doing on those metrics?
Allison: Our key metrics are basically visitors on a weekly and monthly basis. And then also how many patients are searching for doctors on a weekly and monthly basis of course. And right now, we have on average, just about 3000 visitors a week by consumers, patients and doctors alike, for around 12,000 to 13,000 visits a month. And then we have on a weekly basis about 4000 consumers actually searching for providers. I think, that is fantastic. About two or three months ago we were not even hitting the 1000 mark. So, it is pretty exciting that we have grown so fast.
And then, of course, we do base it off of patient postings and patients getting on the site. That is a slowly growing process. We have a couple patient postings a week basically.
And then also, the last metric that we really look at is providers posting their information. Today, we have about 15,000 provider postings and are rapidly growing. Our goal is by December to be hitting somewhere around 150,000 provider postings on our site.
David: So, you expect to get… Did you say you had 15,000 now or 50,000?
Allison: We have 15,000 now. What has been exciting about it is it took us a long time to start getting those. Basically, in the past couple months is when we have really gotten a good chunk of those. Our belief is that we can do it. That is our goal and hopefully we will hit that.
David: Great. So, what are your plans for the future, say beyond 2008?
Allison: Our plans for the future are really just to keep growing and keep getting more and more doctors. I would like to say that at some point in the future we will have a really good percent of the American population and I guess worldwide population of health care providers on the site so that we can really enable all consumers to make a more educated decision about their doctors and not just see a certain percentage of doctors, but see a good percentage of them.
We are going to be starting a couple blogs the next couple months. So, that will be a plan for 2009. Also, advertising is coming out in probably August or September. So, hopefully, we will be bringing in revenue for 2009.
We are going to keep doing a couple redesigns to the site. We have a great tech team that I have hired in the past couple months. So, we will have a great search system. One of the big things I am focused on is really enabling consumers and doctors alike to have a good experience on our site; a good search experience and just be very clear. A lot of sites are crowded and not very self explanatory. So, that is one of the big things we are working on: just developing a very clear and intuitive site.
David: I’ve been speaking with Allison Guimard. She is CEO of Alijor. Allison, thanks for your time today.
Allison: Thank you David for having me.July 23, 2008