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  • Chris Stokel Walker

E-ppointments: Will patients shop around online for a doctor?

Right after 8.30am is a busy time for the ill in Britain. Many medical surgeries do not allow patients to pre-book appointments with their doctors: people must call up in the morning to book an appointment later in the afternoon. Come opening time, the phone lines are jammed with hacking, spluttering sick people trying to beg an audience with their doctor. Being able to book appointments online and outside of office hours not only makes life easier for patients, but gives them more choice. Zesty, a start-up based in London, has signed up 200 dental practices across ten London boroughs since launching at the end of April. Further healthcare sectors, such as surgeries, physiotherapists and osteopaths, will be implemented into its online booking system later this month. Co-founder Lloyd Price is banking on medicine being the next sector to take advantage of e-commerce. He wagers an online interface to make appointments and to compare doctors and dentists against each other, similar to the hotel-booking and rating model perfected by TripAdvisor and Expedia, will replace the engaged-tone at surgeries up and down the land. There is certainly money to be made from the ill: though Britain provides free healthcare for all via the National Health Service (NHS), a fifth of the population supplements state care with paid private health programmes. Zesty charges dentists £80 ($123) per month to be listed on its site. Yet the notion of a simple online or app-based booking system is an idealistic one, and not without its flaws. Health services are more frequently used by older people: two-thirds of those admitted to hospital in Britain are over 65. They are unlikely to be as comfortable with booking appointments online as the young. Still, claims Mr Price, 60% of Zesty’s bookings are made by those over 45 years old. He can also look across the Atlantic for evidence that people will book appointments via start-up apps. ZocDoc, an American health tech company, allows potential patients to search for a physician by location, speciality or the type of insurance they accept. Patients can schedule an appointment on their smartphones. Investors including Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, have put $95m into ZocDoc since its launch in 2007. The company claims 2.5m users a month across 1,800 American cities. Doctors pay $300 per month to be listed on the site. At home Zesty is up against a big established rival. Patient Access says a quarter of Britain’s medical practices use its system, which allows users to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, notify practices of a change of address or send messages to their general practitioners (GPs). Patient Access requires users to have registered with a practice, rather than searching from nearby doctors signed up with the service. If toothache or a sharp pain strikes during the night, Zesty bets its users will be able to sleep better knowing they have an appointment pre-booked without gambling on the morning phone-line lottery. But whether patients will, in practice, shop around for a doctor like tourists do for a hotel on TripAdvisor is yet to be seen.


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