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Chat Online with ER Docs, Fill a Prescription in Minutes with New Startup

CHICAGO — It's 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning and your daughter is running a 103-degree fever. Her pediatrician is not answering the phone. Do you need to go to the ER?

There's a reason this hypothetical question sounds like a word problem on the SAT: Its answer could be extremely complicated, and getting it wrong could have high stakes.

Chicago entrepreneur Patrick Spain has created a cheat sheet.

In late 2012, he launched First Stop Health, a web service he describes as a "health care concierge" that offers around-the-clock access to doctors and delegates tasks — such as  finding the right specialist — to a trained staff of advocates. 

On Tuesday, the company formally rolled out a new pricing plan: for individuals, minimal coverage, including unlimited informational calls to doctors 24/7, costs as little as $14.95 a month.

First Stop Health employs a fleet of doctors across the U.S., many of whom are on duty in rural and suburban emergency rooms where they spend half their time waiting for patients. In a few rings, they promise to connect you with a doctor who can tell you "if you need two Tylenol or a trip to the ER," Spain said.

First Stop Health isn't the first online service to connect subscribers directly with doctors to answer medical questions, but it creates individual user health profiles that are uniquely comprehensive, storing digitized medical records that are easy to share and catering content to each user's specific health needs and interests.

The more comprehensive plans — priced at $249.95 and $349.95 annually and covering up to eight family members — include on-call access to a physician in your state, allowing for over-the-phone prescriptions in some cases.

That can translate to turning a question into medicine in about 30 minutes.

First Stop Health also tackles cases where the healthcare system's complexities gum up the works for its patients.

Spain, who founded the online research company HighBeam Research and Newser, a news curating site, started developing the First Stop concept six years ago. His wife Barbara had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and he was charged with managing her care.

"I had to research the disease, and because of my background as a researcher — because I could quit work for eight weeks to do that — we were able to put together a treatment plan that drastically extended her life," he said. "But very few people can do that."

As a result, Spain says, many patients don't get the care they need, or waste time and money in the process of figuring it out. 

One option he found while researching his wife's treatment was a "health care concierge" service that outsourced the entire process  —  including driving patients to appointments and delivering medications to their doors  —  but would have charged him $60,000 annually.

Spain believes that with the right information and support, everyone can get access to the best possible health care. The team at First Stop Health tackles half that battle, and tries to empower its subscribers to manage the rest.

That's why Spain's been working closely with UpToDate, a service that distills complex medical texts into "Cliff notes" for doctors to share with their patients. Here, Spain found another opportunity to cut out the middleman and save patient costs, securing the first licensing agreement allowing patients to access these reports directly.

All that information shows up on a Facebook-like dashboard for members, along with a feed of health news, both general and tailored to the user's needs. Subscribers can flip through their medical records like profile photos, and the geo-located search engine culls through a database of only board-certified doctors with good reviews by patients and their peers.

"[The healthcare industry] is finally starting to consumerize health care the way we did with financial services 10 years ago," Spain said. "We're trying to create the tools that will make people better shoppers, and better consumers of health care."