HealthTap buys Q&A site Avvo Health to bulk up its community of online doctors

In a move that will nearly double its network of doctors available to answer patients’ questions online, Palo Alto-based HealthTap is acquiring Q&A site Avvo Health.

The acquisition, which is HealthTap’s first and is set to be announced Thursday, will expand its online community of doctors to 30,000 and enable the startup to provide local services for patients. It will also give HealthTap a directory of hundreds of thousands of doctors and dentists across the country (information that the startup previously licensed), which it can add to its database of more than a million medical professionals.

Through HealthTap, patients can pose anonymous questions to the general network of doctors for free or send text-based targeted messages to specific doctors for a small fee. They can also search the growing archive of questions by topic and see the top doctors in different specialties (as determined by other patients and doctors).

But co-founder and CEO Ron Gutman said that users increasingly indicate that they want to be able to find the best doctor for a particular topic as well as someone close by. The Avvo Health acquisition not only adds more doctors to its network, it increases the number of data points it can use to rank doctors and help pair them with patients.

“We’re able to match the question not only with the right doctor for you but also a local doctor,” he said. “And the directory can help you find a physician even if you don’t have a specific question.”

While HealthTap’s initial pitch was that it can help patients find credible and trusted answers to medical questions online, as it grows the startup is expanding its reach into doctor rankings and reviews as well as other services that help patients select physicians. On that front, it is beginning to compete with other consumer-facing sites like HealthGrades, Vitals and even ZocDoc, which provides patient reviews of doctors in addition to appointment booking services. But the added level of engagement on HealthTap could make it a more powerful marketing vehicle for doctors in addition to being a more complete information portal for patients.

Since 2007, Seattle-based Avvo has given patients a way to ask doctors private questions online. The company, which was backed by Benchmark Capital, DAG Ventures and Ignition Partners, also includes a site for asking questions of lawyers, called Avvo Legal. But Avvo only spun off the health side of the business and will keep its legal arm independent. The companies did not disclose the terms of the deal other than to say it was an all-cash acquisition.