HealCam: Chatroulette-Like Site Pairs Patients for Web Chats

Doctors, inspired by Chatroulette, help patients connect.

Feb. 2, 2011— -- For years, 43-year-old Jamie said she combed medical websites and forums searching for people who literally shared her pain.

Hoping to get free of a degenerative disc disease, Jamie, a Dallas resident, had disc replacement surgery in 2009. But she said the operation left her in more discomfort than before.

Spine-health websites helped her find people with the same problem to exchange advice and questions, but Jamie said the "negative" tone started to wear her down.

Then a Facebook friend told her about HealCam, a site that lets patients use webcams to share problems over the Internet. It is a little like Chatroulette, the Internet sensation that connects people visually at random, but its purpose is more serious. Jamie tried it out and immediately saw the potential.

"I think it's a really cool concept. It adds a personal touch to it instead of being one amongst many that can read your thoughts and feelings," she said. "This is just a more private chat, a one-on-one thing."

Doctor Brothers Launch HealCam After ChatRoulette

Since logging on for the first time in early January, Jamie said she's found a couple of other people with similar spine problems. And, she said, the conversations on HealCam have been more encouraging and helpful than the ones she had on more traditional sites.

"I think it's because it's personal," she said. "You don't really know who they are. You can't really tell your whole story in a blog but you can face-to-face."

And that's exactly why Dr. Michael Ostrovsky said he and his brother started the site.

"I think people want to talk to each other for a variety of reasons," he said. "People want to meet people with the same diseases and share experiences."

Ostrovsky, a 41-year-old anaesthesiologist from Half Moon Bay, Calif., said he and his brother Gene started the website last June after learning about ChatRoulette.

The brothers already run MedGadget, "an Internet journal for medical technologies," and say they know of other websites that let patients share information with the crowds. But he said they saw the potential for a site that let people share advice and experiences with one person at a time.

Patients Can Talk Anonymously Face-to-Face

"I think it's good for the health-related community and patient-to-patient communication because it provides anonymity, and anonymity is important," he said.

Visitors to the site use a webcam to communicate with others, but they don't need to share their real names or other identifying personal information.

After signing on, patients simply select one of more than a dozen health topics they'd like to discuss -- from bones and joints to cancer to the immune system -- and then the site searches for another user who wants to talk about the same thing. Users can also indicate their gender, as well the gender of their ideal conversation partner.

Even though HealCam's inspiration site, ChatRoulette, suffered from an overabundance of exhibitionist users, Dr. Ostrovsky said they aren't as worried about HealCam.

"Our idea right now is if people want to expose themselves, they can go to other websites," he said, adding that a bigger concern of theirs was schemers taking advantage of users (especially older ones) on the site.

But he said that HealCam users can contact the site with problems and select a button to report bugs. He also said that the need to select a health topic before being able to talk to someone could deter exhibitionists and potential site abusers.

For the moment, however, the biggest concern seems to be the lack of traffic. On a good day, Dr. Ostrovsky said the site might get about 2,000 visitors. But the flow of traffic seems to come in fits and starts.

Still, things could be worse for a free website that's the second side project for two full-time doctors. And Dr. Ostrovsky said they're working on plans to boost visibility.

"The website is really undiscovered," he said. But, he concluded, "I think the idea is there and it's a good thing for patients."