Health IT

KKR’s $2.8B WebMD acquisition and how searching for health information has evolved

WebMD’s acquisition calls to mind just how much the business of online searches for health information has evolved.

Private equity giant KKR has acquired WebMD, which helped popularize the health information web search, in a $2.8 billion deal. As part of the deal, KKR will make WebMD websites aimed at consumers and clinicians, including Medscape, part of its Internet Brands unit, according to Reuters.

Internet Brands has been active in the healthcare space since 2012 when it acquired Officite, which produces websites and online marketing for healthcare practices.

The company, started in 1996, had monthly unique visits that fluctuated between 74 million at the start of 2o16 to 6o million in November, according to data from comScore. WebMD came into being around the same time as PubMed, a search engine from the National Institutes of Health.

The search for health information online has given rise to so many companies and partnerships in a bid to refine searches and make the experience less like sipping water from a fire hose. Google’s quest to shape how people get health information from its search engine led to a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic with the goal of reducing pseudoscience and misinformation. 

Pew Research Center has tracked the national pastime of searching for health information online through the years. In 2005, Susannah Fox (who later became better known as the CTO for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) noted that eight in 10 Internet users have looked for information online. Although specific diseases and treatments were the prevailing search goals, there was increased interest in wellness drugs, health insurance, experimental treatments, doctors, and hospitals.

In 2006, 113 million American internet users got healthcare information online, by Pew’s reckoning. Pew estimates that more than 88 percent of the U.S. population used the Internet in 2016 or 261.1 million and roughly 80 percent of them look for health information online. Mobile devices have also fueled this growth.

The quest for health information has spilled over onto social media and led to the development of patient networks so that people can more easily share useful information with each other. Physician search engines equipped with rating systems for consumers have also seized on the need to make relevant health information easier to find.

The rise of machine learning tools will have a significant impact on our health information searches.