ZocDoc takes pain out of making appointments

A New York startup is the OpenTable of doctors' appointments, letting people book online

When a startup called ZocDoc whose entire business is to provide a portal for people to make doctors' appointments online moved into my shared Manhattan office, I have to admit I was skeptical about the viability of the company's business plan.

For months the fresh-faced young founders and employees of the company urged me to try the service, which is to doctors what Open Table is to restaurants.

People can sign up free, pick the type of doctor they want from a list of specialties, enter their ZIP codes and insurance information, and instantly search for available appointments with doctors in New York City.

I try to avoid going to the doctor as much as possible outside of yearly check-ups, so I resisted trying the service for months.

In fact, I honestly didn't think ZocDoc was long for this world, despite its catchy name and the enthusiasm of its staff, which organized a Rock-Band room for the office holiday party and sponsored karaoke happy hours.

One rude experience with a receptionist while I was trying to book an appointment later, I decided to give ZocDoc a whirl when I needed an orthopedic specialist for a shoulder injury.

After I registered on ZocDoc, I found a doctor in Manhattan that took my health insurance plan and choose an appointment at a time that was convenient for me.

Immediately after, I received an e-mail to confirm my appointment, as well as a phone call from the doctor's office also to confirm and ask about the nature of my injury. I also requested on the ZocDoc Web site that I be reminded via text message about the appointment on the day it was scheduled - that feature, too, worked without a hitch.

The appointment itself was a smooth experience. I was greeted by a surprisingly friendly receptionist, seen by the doctor and even had X-rays taken in an efficient manner. After my appointment, ZocDoc e-mailed me and asked me to provide feedback about my experience.

I now know why ZocDoc has garnered funding from high-profile tech executives like Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff; beat out 1,499 competitors to win Forbes.com's Boost Your Business contest; was tapped by Microsoft to participate in its BizSpark startup program; and recently outgrew its shared office space because it's hiring even amid the worst recession the U.S. has seen in years.

According to ZocDoc CEO and co-founder Cyrus Massoumi, I wasn't alone in my initial skepticism. Formerly a consultant at high-profile management consultancy McKinsey & Company, he said he was unceremoniously bounced from a dentist's office "in the most rude way" in the "painful" early days of ZocDoc, when he would go door to door trying to get doctors to buy subscriptions to use the service. Subscriptions are how ZocDoc earns revenue.

"There were a lot of skeptics," he said on a recent sunny spring afternoon in ZocDoc's new office space in downtown Manhattan.

"Some of our most successful doctors today [for who] we do 20 percent of their patient booking told Oliver to his face that they didn't think a single one of their patients would ever book online."

"Oliver" is Oliver Kharraz, a medical doctor and ZocDoc's chief operating officer and co-founder.

He and Massoumi were colleagues at McKinsey - Kharraz was an e-health systems specialist - and he convinced Massoumi after the latter's painful experience trying to find a doctor to treat a ruptured ear drum that they should form a company based on Massoumi's idea.

"I kept thinking, 'Why can't I book a doctor online the same ways I can book something else? Why is it such a painful process to find a doctor?' " Massoumi said. "Oliver and I talked about it and he said we should quit our jobs and do this."

They tapped Nick Ganju, a former colleague of Massoumi's at Austin, Texas-based Trilogy Software, to join them as CTO, and the three formed ZocDoc in April 2007.

The ZocDoc service launched in September 2007 only for dentists in Manhattan.

Since then, the company has expanded to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, and has added primary-care physicians as well as six specialties - allergist/immunologists, dermatologists, ear-nose-and-throat doctors, opthamalogists, obstetrician/gynecologists and orthopedic surgeons.

ZocDoc uses software it developed to link participating doctors' practice-management software to its service.

The company also has developed an application that allows practices to personalize their own Web sites with appointment-scheduling that is powered on the back end by ZocDoc's service.

To ensure integration between the core ZocDoc appointment-scheduling system and each of its practices, ZocDoc has developed and is awaiting patents on technologies to aggregate data and integrate the systems.

It's well known that the U.S. health-care system is badly in need of repair and President Barack Obama has made health-care reform a priority. The recent economic stimulus package passed by Congress allocated US$19 billion toward health IT, which is considered by the administration as key to health-care reform.

But Massoumi and Kharraz said that providing health-care coverage helps only part of the problem. Even if a person has health insurance, finding a doctor can be not only a painstaking process, but also a crapshoot. And because it's so difficult, patients may actually not know the kind of services that are available to them because they get tired of searching for a doctor.

According to ZocDoc's founders, 30 percent of doctor's information on insurance providers' Web sites is outdated every 18 months. They found this out the hard way using lists of doctors provided by insurance companies to find physicians to approach about using their service.

"One was deceased and another had left the state for three years -- and that was a preferred doctor at this insurance company," Kharraz said.

Even if patients find a doctor who is offering appointments after calling several from a provider Web site randomly, "you have no idea who is good - who knows?" Massoumi said. ZocDoc lets patients provide feedback on their experiences with doctors, giving users some idea of the level of service a doctor provides.

Both Massoumi and Kharraz said they are passionate about providing a real service to long-suffering patients of the U.S. health-care system, and think their company provides a niche for linking people to health-care services, one that may even inspire them to go to doctors more and practice preventative measures to stay in good health.

The company is hoping to offer its service in other cities starting in about six months, eyeing Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as options for expansion.

"What we're doing is altruistic," Massoumi said. "Had we wanted to sell this company we would have sold it a year ago and been fine for the rest of our lives. But we opted not to do that. We get love letters every day - 'Wow, I had this problem, I had dental pain on Thanksgiving Day and I never though I would find a doctor on a holiday but I used ZocDoc and I did.' That is largely what drives us."

It's a convincing argument, and I'm not the only initial skeptic who now thinks ZocDoc may be on to something. That dentist that kicked Massoumi out of the office in the early days of ZocDoc?

"They joined ZocDoc last week," he said proudly.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

IDG News Service
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