VitalSeek offers search engine on health issues

Lawrence,Kansas (09-15-2002)

From Lawrence Journal-World
By Chad Lawhorn

The way VitalSeek chief operating officer Scott McWilliams sees it, the Internet is the world's greatest medical library. The problem is, it doesn't have a librarian.

Scott McWilliams is chief operating officer of VitalSeek, an Overland Park-based company that has developed a new Internet search engine to better access medical Web sites. The company is a spin off of research conducted at Kansas University.

That's the role he hopes his Overland Park-based company will fill.

He said a recent Harris Interactive poll indicates 60 percent of the 25,000 health-related Web sites are inaccurate and that 60 percent of the people who search for medical information on the Internet don't find what they're looking for.

Those numbers, he said, show a real need for a company that can point Web users in the right direction and alert them to Web sites that have inaccurate information.

"Towards the end of 1999, some of us began realizing there was an emerging problem on the Internet," McWilliams said. "There was an explosion of health-related sites, but a lot of the information was inaccurate and people many times didn't find what they were looking for anyway.

"We felt like we could come up with a company that would help people do something with all that health information that was out there."

The company's solution was to come up with a new type of Internet search engine that would allow Web surfers to filter out inaccurate or outdated Web sites and create searches that would only produce results relevant to the topic they were interested in.

VitalSeek, which has 10 employees, was founded in January 2000 by former Kansas University Medical Center physician Ace Allen. The company's search engine was developed at KU's Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. As a result, the university owns a portion of the firm.

The company launched its VitalSeek search engine in November 2001, and this week signed one of its biggest deals yet a partnership with one of the country's largest health care accreditation organizations.

The organization is called URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission. The deal allows VitalSeek users to specifically request health-related Web sites that have been accredited by URAC.

More importantly, McWilliams said, the partnership will help boost the credibility of VitalSeek as it continues to build a name for itself in the medical community.

"This relationship really shows the medical community on a national level that we have high-quality technology," McWilliams said. "We really feel like there is tremendous potential for this company.

"There are over 90 million Americans a year that search for health-related information on the Internet, and at $1.4 trillion, the health-care industry is the biggest industry in the world. And it's only getting more important as the baby-boomers age.

"That's the field we're playing on every day, and we feel that it gives us a lot of opportunities."

How it works

The basic idea behind the company is simple lead Web users to the health information they are looking for. The technology behind the idea, however, isn't as simple.

Shortly after the company was formed, Allen, who still serves as the company's CEO, and McWilliams, a KU graduate, approached ITTC about developing a search engine that did more than just your typical searches based on a couple of keywords.

They ended up turning to Susan Gauch, an associate professor at KU's electrical engineering and computer science department, and Richard Branham, a KU professor of industrial design. Gauch previously had developed a popular search engine called ProFusion, and Branham had worked on Web designs for companies like Yahoo.

What the team, which included KU graduate students, came up with was a new search engine that gives users 19 different search criteria to enter.

For example, a person looking for Web sites on heart disease could set the filters only to look for Web sites that discuss alternative treatments; that are accredited by URAC; that are affiliated with an educational institution; that have privacy policies that protect the user's personal information; and that have articles that are primarily written for people who work outside the medical community.

"What makes this search engine unique is that it recognizes not everyone who types in a particular search phrase is looking for the same type of results," Gauch said. "We worked to come up with a way to address that issue."

Gauch said she believed the search engine was the first in the world to throw a "human-rating system" into the equation. In addition to letting users set the 19 different criteria, the engine also asks Web users how important the quality of the information on the sites is to them.

Users can respond by clicking on a range of options from extremely important to not important at all. If they pick extremely important, the engine will show only the Web sites that have scored in the top 25 percent of a rating system developed by VitalSeek.

A business plan

But the business has to do more than point Web users in the right direction. It also has to make money. How the company intends to do that also is unique.

Because of the rating system, the company won't accept any money from Web site companies who would like to have their sites listed high on the list of search results. And unlike other Web companies, the firm doesn't plan to make the bulk of its money from banner ads or other Web advertising options.

Instead, the company plans to charge primarily hospital Web sites a fee for using the search engine technology. In other words, when a user clicks on the search function of a hospital Web site, the VitalSeek search engine would power the search.

McWilliams said more and more hospitals were creating Web sites to help market their facilities. Those Web sites need content. McWilliams said buying health-related content easily can cost hospitals more than $100,000 a year.

"So we figure, why not provide them access to the greatest medical library in the world the Internet," McWilliams said. "But hospitals know that a lot of the information on the Internet is inaccurate and hospitals have a real problem sending their patients to inaccurate sites."

The company also hopes to put the search engine on the Web sites for large companies. For example, the company recently signed a deal with Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark Cards to put the search engine on the company's human resources site. The idea is that Hallmark employees will have better access to health-related information.

"With insurance costs rising, there is a real incentive for companies to make sure their employees are well-informed about health," McWilliams said.

For the past year, the company slowly has started placing its search engine technology on sites across the country. The company has placed the engine on about six sites, including the St. Luke's/Shawnee Mission Medical Center site in the Kansas City metro area. The engine also is available at its own site,

McWilliams said the company's goal for this year hadn't been to sign up a lot of companies interested in using the technology. Instead, he said, VitalSeek has focused on working with a few companies that have agreed to give it feedback on how the system works.

"Next year is the year we really plan to grow," McWilliams said. "Once we come out of this year, we think we'll have a product that appeals to any of the 6,500 hospital Web sites and most of the country's Fortune 500 companies."

Making a difference

McWilliams declined to release how much the company charges to place the technology on a Web site or any other financial information about the firm. But he said he was confident about the company's ability to turn a profit.

He said company officials, in addition to expanding the medical Web site, also would explore other uses for the search engine technology. Company officials said the technology could be customized to serve other industries.

"For example, if somebody wanted to take the time to rank all the car-buying Web sites out there, the technology behind this search engine could be used for that," Gauch said.

Spin-offs would be good news for the university, because the private research arm of the university owns a portion of the company, although McWilliams declined to say how much.

"The university owns some equity in the company, so as the company prospers, the university will, too," McWilliams said.

But McWilliams said he thought the health-care industry was the perfect place to launch the new technology, and not just for business reasons.

"Since we began this project, there have been at least five of us in the company that have dealt with some very serious medical issues either personally or through a family member," McWilliams said. "It makes you realize how important the quality of the information is.

"And that's what it comes down to. Besides the economic benefit, we see this as something that can make the Internet better and make people's lives better."

For more information, contact ITTC.

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