U.S. doctors and health-care providers now have a private and secure social network to collaborate with their peers and exchange ideas.

Called Doximity, the network was launched in 2011 as a way for physicians to exchange private messages on sensitive medical issues and patient treatment. Earlier this year, a discussion forum application was added to the network, enabling verified doctors to chat with colleagues on industry topics in a group setting.

While the concept of a messaging platform obviously isn’t new, it’s a boon for physicians who still rely on fax machines and pagers to communicate due to health information protection mandates in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Under the law, doctors traditionally have been restricted from using email, texting and Facebook-like forums for certain functions because of security concerns.

But Doximity has overcome that barrier. The network achieved HIPAA compliance by employing a 256-bit advanced encryption standard and a credentialing process that requires physicians to use their real names and undergo an extensive verification procedure.

Once verified, members of Doximity can access the network from a computer or remotely from a mobile device, giving them easier access to the knowledge of thousands of doctors nationwide. The network was beta tested by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and physicians at Stanford University Medical Center in California.

Jeff Tangney, founder and CEO of Doximity, said mobile connectivity was one of the drivers behind the concept of the medical network.

“It’s a little sad and concerning, in a way, that the best communication technology in a doctor’s office is probably in the hands of the teenager sitting in the waiting room,” Tangney said.

“The average primary care doctor spends 40 minutes a day trying to get on the phone with other physicians,” he added. “We saw a real need to create a secure messaging platform for doctors.”

How it Works

To gain access to Doximity, a doctor enters his or her name and searches for the pre-existing profile on the site. A listing of possible matches comes up, similar to what a person sees when trying to access his or her credit report. If a profile exists, any preloaded information that’s present is culled from government databases, including ClinicalTrials.gov and grants from the National Institutes of Health.

If the correct profile is located, the doctor then chooses that account, fills in the missing information, and registers with Doximity. Or if no profile exists, one can be created. At that point, a weeklong verification process is triggered that validates a doctor’s U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) number — the numbers assigned to physicians that allow them to write prescriptions — and the doctor’s American Medical Association status.

The person’s background is then internally reviewed by Doximity. A network applicant’s email address is verified and a fellow physician goes through the profile to ensure that the facts surrounding a doctor’s residency training and publications match up.

Once approved, a doctor can then begin using the network’s communication tools, including iRounds, Doximity’s new physician discussion forum. Users can look up peers, invite physicians who aren’t yet a part of the network, make private inquiries to other doctors, join in ongoing discussion topics, or post general information queries to the entire network.

Tangney said that unlike Twitter and Facebook, where a person can create an account for a dog or fictional person, Doximity’s lengthy and thorough verification process gives doctors peace of mind that who they are talking to really is a medical peer.

“It isn’t people showing pictures of their kids, but there is a social aspect to it in that you can let your hair down a bit and talk freely because you know you’re among other professionals and doctors,” Tangney said.

Early Returns

According to Tangney, the biggest initial challenge in establishing the network was merely having enough people registered to demonstrate the community’s usefulness.

That isn’t a problem now, however. In little more than a year, Doximity has expanded its roster of users to more than 50,000 U.S. physicians, totaling about 9 percent of all doctors in the nation. Medical schools are also getting involved on the platform, using it to connect physicians doing their residencies and also alumni.

Tangney said the Stanford University School of Medicine will announce next week that it will use Doximity as its primary alumni and professional network.

In addition, when asked if military physicians were a part of the network, Tangney said Doximity has had a number of instances where people in remote places have wanted to do a consultation with network members to get a quick opinion from experts in the U.S. He wouldn’t elaborate on the situations, saying they were private to the doctors involved, but said there were “a few great stories” stemming from situations overseas.

“Facebook is making the world more open and connected [but] the problem is, when it comes to your medical records, you don’t want to be more open, you just want to be connected,” Tangney said. “You want it to be connected between the people that need to know and make decisions on your behalf. That’s our goal. To make your medical records not more open, but more connected.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.