Updated March 30 at 4:30pm

Local websites working to improve grasp of care options

Despite a range of online sites, many consumers say they lack the depth of information they need to compare health care services or feel confident they are making the right choice in picking a clinician. Several Rhode Island businesses have …

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HEALTH CARE

Local websites working to improve grasp of care options

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Despite a range of online sites, many consumers say they lack the depth of information they need to compare health care services or feel confident they are making the right choice in picking a clinician.

Several Rhode Island businesses have started to fill these gaps, with online and in-person services that offer more detailed information in formats, including video, that allow them to make more informed choices.

Zencare, an online platform that connects consumers to professional therapists, was begun last year by a Brown University graduate. The company's public site, zencare.co, includes professional vision statements from the selected therapists and videos that aim to bring out the personality and professional approach of each.

Another company, Warwick-based Doctor's Choice, offers both online and in-person consultation, and group seminars, designed to educate consumers about Medicare.

The company's CEO, Dr. John Luo, started his business after graduating from Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School. During his clinical training, he was repeatedly asked questions about Medicare from elderly or soon-to-retire patients, he said. He started researching their questions and found plenty of information but "not a lot of coherent content."

A presentation he created on Medicare options, shown as part of his program, soon led to a professional appointment, presenting the information to soon-to-be-retired Brown employees. His business, formed in 2012, is aimed at reducing confusion and helping clients navigate the choices they have in Medicare.

Doctor's Choice takes the approach he used as a youth in translating English for his parents, who are originally from China. The company, at doctorschoiceusa.com, presents the information to clients in a simplified way. It works with several major insurers, and the insurers pay a fee for enrollments received from the company.

When people contact Doctor's Choice, Luo said, they are not sure if they are making the right choices about their health care insurance. "They're really confused about what to do and whether they're missing out on something," he said.

Zencare CEO Yuri Tomikawa started her company after trying to find a therapist herself and feeling she wasn't getting the kind of information she needed to make an informed choice. Beyond credentials, she wanted to know how she would relate to them.

"Therapists can vary so much in the quality of their services and the approaches they take to treatment," she said. "When I was looking for a therapist, and I was going through these lists, there were hundreds of names on a web page. It was impossible to tell who was good. There was no quality vetting."

The clinicians were licensed, but she wanted a qualitative vetting. "Just as with any profession, doctors, dentists, you want the best people," Tomikawa said. "You can't tell that just from their names."

Zencare initially started as a platform that featured therapists and other professional clinicians who had been recommended by Brown students and graduates, who were then vetted by Tomikawa with the assistance of a medical adviser.

Now, in addition to referrals, therapists reach out to the company for inclusion on its site. The platform provides information about their background, and photos and video that showcase each professional.

Zencare, based in Providence, is now preparing to launch in Boston. A sister website will feature the Boston-based professionals.

Tomikawa, who created the websites, meets personally or by video with prospective clinicians. This allows her, or her contracted staff, to see how responsive they are to questions and how personable they are. The company also checks public sites to determine if clinicians have been disciplined, she said.

To date, nearly 50 clinicians – including psychiatrists, therapists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and dieticians – have been signed up, she said. Consumers can choose among a variety of specialty areas, such as adoption counselors, those influenced by Buddhist philosophy and those who specialize in couples' therapy or ADHD.

The site also includes information about insurance, as well as an explanation of various definitions and what that type of professional can and cannot do.

The point is an easier navigation tool to connect prospective patients with professionals. Zencare receives its revenue from the therapists, who pay the company a fee to participate on its platform. The process is cost-free for users. They pay the therapist they select directly, typically using insurance.

Tomikawa wanted to facilitate, particularly for young adult clients, a process that allows them to carefully examine therapists. The point of the photos and videos, for example, is to allow them to determine if they think the therapist is a good fit for them.

Patients can book a phone call, for five minutes, via the site to ask the therapist questions before scheduling an appointment.

"I would call it being an educated consumer, an educated patient," Tomikawa said. •

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