WebMD eyeing expansion into healthcare price transparency, telehealth

By Jonah Comstock
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WebMD may soon begin to offer healthcare price transparency tools to users, and is even looking at becoming involved in telehealth, CEO David Schlanger said on a recent earnings call. Schlanger also talked about traffic and search trends, Medscape Consult, and the company’s video content strategy.

WebMD revenues hit $192.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2015, up from $162.7 million in Q4 2014, an increase of 18 percent, WebMD reported. Advertising and sponsorship revenue grew 25 percent to $158.3 million compared to $127 million for Q4 2014.

“Unfortunately it's far easier to compare prices, relative service levels, and quality of restaurants, hotels, or virtually any other product online than it is to make a fully-informed decision regarding the purchase of a healthcare product or service,” Schlanger said. “Even a simple generic prescription, you often don't know the price you'll have to pay for the product until you are standing at the register at the pharmacy counter ready to check out. We have begun to address this problem with enhancements to our provider directory that, among other things, will allow users to compare physician experience levels around specific procedures and conditions. We continue to work on other opportunities to better inform consumer decision-making.”

Schlanger mentioned telehealth briefly in his prepared remarks, but elaborated during the Q&A about how the company could go about adding a telemedicine offering.

“I think we believe as a company that alternative primary care like telehealth will eventually gain a wider adoption. We think that WebMD is well-positioned to provide access to those services because of the trust in our brands and our distribution," he said. "…It's likely we may enter the telehealth business either through a partnership or acquisition and in general, we are starting to see -- after a long period where valuations were very, very high -- we are starting to see some moderation and changing of expectations among sellers.”

WebMD continues to grow in revenues and page views, despite a decline in the growth rate of their web traffic, which has largely been driven by organic search traffic, Schlanger said. 

“Starting in the third quarter of 2015, we began to experience a decline in the rate of growth of our overall traffic, and this has continued into the current quarter.” Schlanger said. “… Based on the information available to us, we believe that two potential factors are at play. Firstly, according to data available to us there has been a slowing in the rate of growth of the total volume of searches across the digital health information sector. And secondly, Google has implemented changes to the presentation of its search results. Although it is difficult to quantify these factors, we continuously monitor our traffic sources and referral patterns and, as we've done in the past, we will implement changes when applicable.”

The WebMD health network of sites saw 201 million unique users per month and a total of 3.97 billion page views for the quarter, increases of 6 percent and 7 percent over last year. Thirty-nine percent of page view traffic was from US smartphones, 23 percent was from US PCs, 7 percent was from US tablet devices, and 31 percent was international. We published an in-depth report last month about WebMD's performance since 2008.

Schlanger said that Medscape continues to be WebMD’s most popular product internationally, and that the company’s new Medscape Consult feature actually played a role in the international physician conversation around the Zika virus outbreak.

“In November, more than a month before it garnered mainstream media attention, a physician in Brazil posed the question on Medscape Consult, our new crowdsourced clinical knowledge platform, which supports physicians with peer-to-peer insights and evidence-based answers at the point of care,” Schlanger said. “This physician was seeing a considerable number of children born with microcephaly in a small region in Brazil. He asked his peers on Medscape Consult whether they thought there might be a connection between microcephaly and the Zika virus infection during pregnancy.”

WebMD jumped on the conversation, Schlanger said, and has worked to quickly push out extra Medscape content, translated into Spanish and Portuguese, around the Zika virus.

On the content side, Schlanger said, WebMD is creating more short, shareable video content to drive web users to WebMD. The company is currently creating “12 new video series that range from short, snackable, social-friendly episodes such as how-to’s and explainers to longer-form programming hosted by well-known journalists.”