How do doctors spell relief? W-E-B

( M.D. Consult President Jerry Freeland tells why doctors and researchers will "shell out the dough" for content and technology.

( M.D. Consult President Jerry Freeland tells why doctors and researchers will "shell out the dough" for content and technology.)

Changes in the health care industry have created a population of harried, overworked doctors -- and a big potential market for medical information services.

Physicians Online, for example, has upwards of 150,000 subscribing practitioners, a plum audience for the pharmaceuticals companies and other medical organizations whose advertising supports the resource.

Now, another company is entering the field, backed by some heavy ammunition and a different approach. Three large medical publishers have joined forces to launch M.D. Consult L.L.C., based in St. Louis, which aims to position itself as the doctors' premiere source for comprehensive, up-to-date medical information. The service held its official rollout on October 1.

Unlike other services, which are supported by advertising, M.D. Consult borrows a page out of the book of Lexis-Nexis, the popular, long-standing (and pricey) news and legal information service. Advertising-free M.D. Consult intends to charge for subscriptions, and it believes doctors are set to pay.

"We feel, and our partners feel, that there is plenty of trusted reliable content here that physicians will find of great value," said M.D. Consult President Jerry Freeland.

The numbers Freeland sets out are impressive enough. At launch, M.D. Consult will offer the full text of 32 books, the full contents of 24 journals, practice guidelines, and a number of medical databases, among other services. Freeland said the service has 250,000 pages of information already online, a number that will be growing.

But Physicians Online, for one, offers a very similar selection, and its brand name is already well known among doctors. So what does M.D. Consult bring to the table?

Experts who watch the online industry say M.D. Consult's edge could come from the reputation of its backers and from the quality of its technology. "It has to be the content and the technology, nothing more complicated than that," says Ben De La Cruz, senior editor of the New Media Group at Cowles/Simba Information, a Stamford, Conn., media research firm.

Lippincott-Raven Publishers, Mosby-Year Book Inc. and W.B. Saunders, three well-known medical publishers, formed M.D. Consult, which is a separate company.

De La Cruz says M.D. Consult's business model has potential. "Serious researchers will want to pay the money to insure that they get the most comprehensive search. People may not trust a lower-priced service. They may say, this is really important, let's shell out the dough and get the best quality.

"Lexis-Nexis is one of the most successful research services out there, and it's been around forever," he adds. "That model is still viable."

On the technology side, M.D. Consult brought in Tom Hamilton as its vice president of technology; Hamilton came from Lexis-Nexis where he led software development activities.

M.D. Consult's Freeman says the organization conducted market tests with 5,000 doctors before designing the service. The results showed a large demand for a comprehensive information resource. "[Doctors'] time is limited," Freeman said. "They need to be able to verify information, as well as seek out new information, in a quick way. Comprehensiveness was one of the key points. If it's not truly comprehensive, then they're going to have to go to 12 different publishers to find what they need."

Freeman claims the information provided by M.D. Consult's three backers will give the service the all-inclusive scope it needs.

Analyst De La Cruz ties emerging services like M.D. Consult into a larger trend of Internet resources focusing on tightly-knit communities. PointCast Inc., for example, recently launched a news and information network specialized for college students. "More than ever you're starting to see more vertical markets emerge, more services becoming really niche oriented, serving specific communities. And that's what this health care market is all about. It's an easy market to target because it's already established."

Freeman added that M.D. Consult would be available outside the United States. "American medicine is very much the standard throughout the world," he says. "People around the world look to U.S. doctors for standards of knowledge." He says the company's research has shown a strong overseas interest in the service.


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