Phone link to doctors offered

Medical Advisory's Doc-Talk directed to Web site visitors

Health services

October 13, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Medical Advisory Systems Inc., a fast-growing company that provides health information over the Internet, yesterday began offering a phone service to allow callers to speak directly with a doctor for answers to medical questions.

The service, known as Doc-Talk, is considered one of the few, if not the only, widely available fee-based health information phone services in the country.

The Calvert County-based company is hoping to tap into Americans' growing interest in health information and their frustration with getting time with doctors to discuss medical concerns.

"Consumers in this country have for years felt their voice doesn't count when it comes to health," said Ron Pickett, founder, chairman and president of Medical Advisory Systems.

"But now they are becoming empowered by the wave of health information now available to them. It's our plan to offer that information through the finest tele-medicine call center in the country."

Whether people will flock to the phones and part with about $13 to make the call remains to be seen.

A number of health-related associations, such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, will send callers free background information on specific health topics. And other Internet health sites cull questions sent in by e-mail to post answers on their Web sites at no charge, or sponsor weekly live "chats" with medical experts.

Pickett believes that the service could be a hit based on the thousands of questions its bullpen of 120 physicians fields each day through the live chat service offered through the AmericasDoctor.com Web site.

Medical Advisory holds a 14.5 percent stake in AmericasDoctor.com's owner, AmericasDoctor.com Inc. of Owings Mills, and is under contract to provide the Web site with the chat service.

"People want someone to explain to them what things mean after they've been told something by a doctor. They want facts to help them make sense of it all," Pickett said.

The publicly held company is so bullish on the new service that it expects Doc-Talk to become its "flagship product and key revenue generator," Pickett said.

He said the company estimates that between 2 percent and 6.5 percent of the people who log onto a chat site at AmericasDoctor.com will end up calling the toll-free phone number to speak to a physician. Medical Advisory is under contract with the Owings Mills Web site operator to provide physicians to answer questions over the chat service.

The company estimates that its doctors handle about 3,000 chats daily. Doc-Talk is expected to handle at least 600 phone calls a day.

Pickett said the new service is a consumer version of the tele-medicine service it has offered for years to the maritime industry for its ships and oil rigs at sea.

The company has no forecast of initial revenue from the new service.

Two weeks ago, the company disclosed that it will restate its earnings for the first nine months of the fiscal year, which ended July 31, to reflect a loss instead of a profit.

The restated earnings are the result of a new accounting treatment for a $3 million investment in AmericasDoctor.com Inc.

The company said it will treat that investment as a noncash charge against earnings instead of as an expense.

Medical Advisory said it expects to report a $2.1 million loss for the period, instead of the previously reported $512,000 profit.

As for the Doc-Talk service, which has been in the works for about 15 months, Medical Advisory initially is marketing it only to AmericasDoctor.com Web site visitors.

But the company plans to expand marketing through other Internet sites. It also has plans for a nationwide advertising campaign to build Doc-Talk's brand identity.

Medical Advisory hopes to make money by charging a fee for the service: $12.95 for the first three minutes of a call and $3.45 for each additional minute.

Callers on the toll-free Doc-Talk number will be required to give a credit-card number prior to a physician getting on the line.

Doc-Talk's physicians will be restricted to providing callers with general health and medical information concerning their area of interest.

"We will not provide diagnosis. This is not a diagnostic service," said Michael H. Savage, director of investor relations.

Shares in Medical Advisory, which have slid 65 percent since May 20, closed yesterday at $9.75, down 56.25 cents.

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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