Docs flock to private social networks amid tighter laws; 20 pct of U.S. doctors join Doximity

Professionals in every field need to be careful about the messages they send out over social media and email – indeed, over the past few years, we’ve seen plenty of stories (even slideshows full of them) of people fired for posts on Facebook (s FB) and Twitter.
But doctors – who must comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or HIPAA) – are in an especially sensitive situation.  For them, security slip-ups can lead to hefty fines. And, over the past few years, as more health information has gone digital, the government has tightened privacy laws by, for example, increasing maximum fines, cracking down on more violations and penalizing organizations for smaller breaches.
That’s creating a high-pressure environment for doctors – but also growing opportunity for physician-only social networks that promise doctors a secure way to collaborate and communicate with peers.  Back in September, Doximity, a kind of “LinkedIn (s LNKD) for doctors,” said that it had crossed the 100,000-member mark less than two years after launching. On Monday, the San Mateo, Calif.-based company announced that it had reached another milestone, attracting 125,000 doctors, or one out of every five doctors in the U.S. Registered users include those who have created a profile and, on average, share more than a dozen professional milestones (including their residencies, awards and articles). Of its 125,000 users, the company said, about one-third are active on the site each month.
Jeff Tangney, the company’s CEO, said Doximity’s growth is even double that of Epocrates, the popular mobile health company he co-founded in the late 1990s (and that was recently acquired by athenahealth (s ATHN)). He attributes part of its rise to the quality of the network and the content – the company made a point of launching with thought leaders from top hospitals like Columbia, Stanford, UCSF and the Univ. of Pennsylvania.  But he said that the tightening privacy laws are also giving the site a boost.
“Privacy and HIPAA seem to be a real tailwind for us,” Tangney said. “The law, while having more teeth, has become part of the doctors’ consciousness that they need to be more careful about sending that message or email.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services said it made the most “sweeping changes” to HIPAA, raising the maximum penalty for negligence, strengthening data breach notification requirements and expanding the pool of parties who must comply with the law.
But even before that, Tangney said, doctors were becoming more aware of rising penalties for security violations. In 2011, an emergency room doctor in Rhode Island was fired for posting information about a patient on Facebook. (Even though the doctor never mentioned the patient’s name, the hospital board decided her post was too revealing.) This month, a hospice in Idaho became the first health care organization to be fined ($50,000) for a breach affecting fewer than 500 individuals.
As doctors look for secure social networking options, Doximity, however, isn’t their only option. For example, QuantiaMD, founded in 2008, says 160,000 doctors (or a quarter of the country’s physicians) use its site; Sermo, launched in 2005, says 20 percent of doctors are part of its community; and forMD, a new site backed by accelerator Blueprint Health, is throwing its hat into the ring.
But not only does Doximity provide a secure and real-name network of doctors (all members are authenticated), it opened up an API in October to let developers and medical services plug into its platform. Tangney said 15 companies are using the API and, going forward, it will be interesting to see what kinds of tools and services can be built on top of the network.
To date, company has raised just under $28 million from investors including Morganthaler Ventures, Emergence Capital Partners and Interwest Partners.