‘Sadness and appreciation.’ How Healthwise founder feels about the sale to WebMD

When Don Kemper founded Healthwise in Boise nearly 50 years ago, the only place you could go to get medical information was a hospital’s medical library, and you had to have your doctor go get it for you.

Healthwise set out to change all that, and in many ways the small nonprofit founded right here in Boise helped to revolutionize health care by empowering patients through information.

“There have been huge changes over the years as to how involved patients could get in their own medical decisions,” Kemper said in a phone interview Friday. “And we take credit for a portion of that. It was a good fight, and we felt we made good progress.”

Healthwise was acquired by medical information giant WebMD, the company announced Thursday.

I spoke with Kemper to get his feelings about the sale of the organization that he founded and cared deeply about for the past five decades.

“There is both sadness and appreciation,” Kemper said. “We can all feel good about what we contributed to make the world a better place.”

In the early 1970s, Kemper, then a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, heard a talk by an assistant secretary for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, who said the greatest untapped resource in health care was the patient.

“That was big news back then,” he said.

And it was the spark that led to Kemper’s desire to create what he called “A Dr. Spock book for the whole family,” referring to “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” the ubiquitous child-rearing psychology manual in the 1970s written by the pediatrician Benjamin Spock.

Kemper wanted to provide the same kind of everyday medical knowledge to patients to empower them to make good health decisions.

“We needed a Dr. Spock for the whole family to help people know what they can do for themselves at home, when to call the doctor and how to get their money’s worth when they go,” Kemper said. “And so that was the impetus of the thought about Healthwise.”

Kemper created a series of community workshops in Boise on taking care of your health, which he scaled up to include videos and even a call-in TV show, then launched the Healthwise Handbook, which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide to mostly hospitals and health plans. Notably, every family in British Columbia received a copy of the handbook.

“In the early days, we did workshops and that book to begin to focus on the mission of helping people make better health decisions,” Kemper said. “That became our mission and stuck with it and still, to this day.”

When the internet came along, Healthwise was one of the first to put consumer health information online, developing what it called the Healthwise Knowledgebase. WebMD was an early partner, licensing Healthwise information for its own website.

And then, in the early 2000s, Kemper and his wife, Molly Mettler, who was senior vice president of mission at Healthwise, published a book, “Information Therapy.”

“We said that when you go to your doctor and you don’t get information prescribed to you, you don’t get good care, because the information you get from your doctor is just as important as the surgery you get or the medication you get,” Kemper said. “And so we began to change the national culture around what doctors should prescribe to their patients. And then that changed the Healthwise products.”

Healthwise began to create information that was embedded in electronic medical records for physicians to provide to their patients.

“And that carried us on for the next decade or so,” he said. “I think, over time, we’ve stuck to the same mission of helping people make better health decisions, and we have changed with the advance of technology.”

Kemper said since news broke of the sale Thursday, he’s been talking to Healthwise retirees and others about the news.

“We’re trying to look at the good work that we’ve done through the years and the recognition that the world is changing,” he said. “It’s exceptional for our little independent nonprofit to last for 50 years.”

So what’s next?

Artificial intelligence, or AI, Kemper said, and that might be what’s behind Healthwise’s sale to WebMD.

Less than a year ago, a WebMD division called WebMD Ignite announced an exclusive partnership with HIA Technologies, Inc. to offer a new solution called HealthInteractive that delivers artificial intelligence-powered health assistants.

“My feelings are growing acceptance that this (sale) had to happen someday,” Kemper said. “And that I trust the board, and certainly (Healthwise CEO) Adam Husney, who is — I would hate to have been in this decision point. I’m sure he made the right call.”

In the meantime, Kemper’s proud of the legacy he built at Healthwise.

“I never felt like I had a job at Healthwise,” he said. “It always seemed like a mission. And it paid off. I mean, not only in our own work, but we helped set national policy that promoted information to patients.”