Health IT

Cleveland’s Within3 evolves (out of social networking?)

The company unveiled its redesigned site last week, which highlights Within3’s transformation from creating a LinkedIn for doctors to a Ning for health-care interests. Instead of building a physicians-only social network for all doctors to commiserate around any subject, it creates customized members-only social networks on specific subjects such as clinical trials, hospital alumni or medical specialties. It plans to double its 25 member staff by the end of 2010, and recent deals end “the speculation about will social media take off in health care,” said Lance Hill, president and chief executive officer at Within3.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The medical social network Within3 has a new Web site, new customers and new plans to expand.

The company unveiled its redesigned site last week, which highlights Within3’s transformation from creating a LinkedIn for doctors to Nings focused on health-care interests. Instead of building a physicians-only social network for all doctors to commiserate around any subject, Within3 now creates customized members-only social networks on specific subjects such as clinical trials, hospital alumni or medical specialties.

Within3 made the switch sometime ago and has recently announced deals to match the model. Earlier this year it launched an online community around head-and-neck cancer research at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and another for physicians at Children’s Hospital Boston. This week the company said it’s created a network for the American College of Gastroenterology which will open at the group’s annual meeting in late October.

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“This ends the speculation about will social media take off in health care,” said Lance Hill, president and chief executive officer at Within3. “This is a broad, marquee and highly visible example.”

Within3 is named after the idea that most people are connected to one another within three individuals. That concept, the success of broader social networks like Facebook, and the potential to tap into pharmaceutical marketing dollars spurred several companies to create online social networks for physicians. The biggest online network is Sermo, which has more than 100,000 members. Many of these companies sell to pharmaceutical companies and other interest groups access to observe the interactions of the doctors.

But here’s the rub with physicians. They may be within three connections of you, but there’s a good chance they may not care and likely won’t have the time to to talk with you, anyway. None of the online social networks — Within3 included — can claim they’ve figured out how to serve doctors in the way Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks connect with their communities.

If Within3’s name changed to reflect its new philosophy, the company would likely be called Within1 — connecting doctors who are connected to other doctors by one very intense, vested interest. Hill said the doctors are too busy and too focused to gather for broader purposes.

The American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) will use Within3 to create GI Circle: a virtual, interactive and year-round version of its annual conference. Members can post research, which can be updated and commented on by other members. Members can also connect Facebook style for either social or professional purposes.

“I don’t know if it will be a Facebook kind of thing, but it will allow people to socialize,” said Dr. Philip Katz, president-elect of the ACG and chairman of gastroenterology at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.

“What’s out there now does work,” Katz said, referring to conferences, journals, e-mails and other outreach efforts. “But they’re not as optimal for the free and instant access people like.”

For Katz, like many of his colleagues, this will be his first try at social networking. “I do nothing,” he said. And the AGC doesn’t yet know how they’ll judge whether the investment was worth it; they’ll largely rely on feedback from members.

Within3 is five years old, and Hill said the company is “flirting with profitability.” Whether it reaches profitability sooner rather than later will depend on how quickly it wants to expand, he said.

Overall, Within3 has raised $7 million and recently completed a round of fund-raising, though Hill declined to say much the company raised. Hill said the business could double in size from 25 employees to 50 by the end of next year. Within3 would likely have to take on more capital if it opted for a faster expansion.

Within3 makes its money by charging an annual software license fee for the site as well as ongoing service costs associated with maintaining it. Within3 doesn’t sell access to the site to pharmaceutical companies, but it does get a piece of pharma money. For example, the ACG paid for its Within3 site with the help of AstraZeneca, which will get some acknowledgement on GI Circle, ACG officials said.

Hill is used to answering questions about whether doctors will ever engage in social media. The new question for Within3 is whether it’s even a social networking company or, instead, simply a highly specialized Web design company building stand-alone sites. Attendees at this week’s Health 2.0 conference in California were asking the company that very question, said Kathy Ruggeri, Within3’s director of marketing.

Comparisons to Ning are common, but problematic. Ning is a free Web-based service that lets anyone create their own social network around any topic — albeit much sloppier than Within3’s sites. Yet Ning does offer forums, restricts access to only the people you want and other features Within3 charges for.

Ruggeri said the company offers much more than free services or what a Web design firm can. It has technology to create a social network, expertise in everything from regulatory and privacy standards in health care, and services to make sure the community participates once it’s up and running.

Also, Within3 members can also join multiple Within3 communities. For example, a gastroenterologist could be in both GI Circle and, if they’re an employee at Boston Children’s, join the hospital’s Within3 site, too. That would create a social networking “ecosystem,” but it hasn’t happened much yet.