ePharmacy Ro launches doc-approved WebMD rival Health Guide

'Whatever your symptom, WebMD says you have cancer.' It's a long-running joke that underscores the distrust of perhaps the top source of medical advice, stemming from a confusing site clogged with ads that's been criticized for questionable information and pushing pills from its sponsors.

Health Guide is the new medical handbook for the internet where 30% of content is written by doctors and 100% is reviewed by them. On a single clean, coherent page for each condition, it lays out a tl;dr summary, what the ailment really is, how to spot the symptoms, and what you need for treatment. Rather the pushing you to nervously keep clicking, it just wants to answer the question.

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Health Guide officially launches today. It was built by digital pharmacy Ro, that's raised $176 million for medicine brands Ro for men's health, Rory for women's health, and Zero for smoking cessation. With Ro, patients can get a $15 telemedicine consultation with a doctor, receive an instant prescription, and have it filled and sent to you from the startup's in-house pharmacy operating in all 50 states. A competitor to Hims & Hers, Ro scored a $500 million valuation last year.

Rather than aggressively hawking its own products at the end of articles, Health Guide just lists the medications you could take, insists you ask a doctor what's right, and leaves it up to you to choose where to buy.  Ro founder Zachariah Reitano calls Health Guide "A significant investment in trust. There's not a clear ROI (return on investment) to it but it's one of those long-term bets . . . Providing education to patients will serve Ro really well in the long-run." He acknowledges the suspicions of self-dealing, and says "if we don't do this correctly, it can hurt more than it can help."

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On Health Guide you can search for specific conditions, browse categories like diabetes or hair loss, and browse featured articles like 'Proven ways to increase the density of your bones' or 'How do you test for gonorrhea'. There are no banner ads, so your search about the flu or testosterone won't immediately lead to you being bombarded with promotions for Mucinex or dicey supplements. "On these other sites . . you have [advertisers] with unregulated supplements and services that are the highest bidder beside medical information, which creates a lot of distrust."

The simplicity and accuracy of Health Guide has already attracted a sizable audience. It's on pace to reach 30 million readers this year, with 25% being women despite Ro's initial focus on aiding men with erectile dysfunction. It already ranks in the top 10 Google results for 300 medical questions. The no-filler entries come signed by the specific doctors that wrote or approved them, and Ro pledges to have them reviewed and updated at least once per year. At the bottom are links to all the original source material, including peer-reviewed medical journals.

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Reitano tells me that the idea from Health Guide came after Ro's physicians and customer service were bombarded with the same patient questions over and over. The easiest move was to put all the answers on an open site they could send patients to. A major goal was debunk hoaxes other sites often don't address directly. "For something like vaccines where there is a potential for misinformation, you'll see us take a strong stance. We won't let the potential for misinformation spread through Health Guide."

One thing Health Guide is missing that could keep people coming back to WebMD is a symptom checker. Right now it's better at research on major conditions or lifestyle choices than figuring out why your throat's sore. But given it's day one and Ro has tons of funding, it has plenty of time to improve. There's sure to be concerns about how it collects data and what treatments Health Guide lists. So as a precaution, it never forcefully makes recommendations besides asking a doctor for personalized advice, and there's just one button atop the site for visiting its medication marketplace.

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Ro is trying to move fast as the ePharmacy space heats up. It plans to launch 10 more products in the next two quarters, with a focus on Rory for women. It just struck an exclusive deal with Pfizer to provide Roman customers with generic viagra, offering clear supply chain transparency around a drug that's often counterfeited. And thanks to its licenses across all states, it's helping new weight loss treatment Plenity launch nationwide atop its diagnosis, prescription, and fulfillment technology.

Yet Reitano sees space for multiple startups to succeed in replacing embarrassing and inconvenient in-person trips to the doctor or drug store. "It might be a somewhat cheesy answer but . . . the best thing about competition is it makes everyone build a better experience for patients" he says, citing NURX and PillClub enhancing birth control access. "I think all this innovation in digital health -- it's an absolutely massive market. No one's taking market share from someone else. We're raising the bar for care."

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