About 1 in 10 people in the U.S. suffer from migraine headaches. The direct cost to business for medical care and wage replacement is over $1 bn, but this underestimates the total economic impact of lost productivity to the economy and personal lives (for more on  whole-health costs, read yesterday’s Health Populi, Lost Costs: Lost Productivity Represents One-Half of Health Costs for U.S. Employers). There are actually 14 kinds of headaches, as classified by the International Headache Society (IHS). Among these, there are four primary headache types: migraine, tension-type headaches, cluster headaches and trigeminal autonomic cephalagias, and a fourth category IHS calls “other.”

There’s a new online site for migraineurs and other headache sufferers, appropriately named, Migraine.com. Health Populi sat with the founders of Health Union, Tim Armand and Olivier Chateau, to discuss their first online venture, Migraine.com.

Jane: How did Health Union come to be?

Tim: Olivier and I spent a combined 23 years in the commercial side of pharma at GSK. We both were involved in so-called “eMarketing” from its infancy, developing marketing programs for a number of brands directed towards both physicians and patients. I spent the last 2 ½ years leading the marketing of a brand that often found itself surrounded by controversy, and Olivier led the consumer marketing effort for the same brand. In that capacity, we experienced first-hand the power of social media and search. Unfortunately, we experienced how difficult it was to battle a storm of social media with traditional communications techniques. Although I’m not looking to re-live, or second-guess, that experience here, we did come away from that time in awe of what social media and search could do. We did not feel that traditional healthcare online publishers took full advantage of both social and search. Some excel in one or the other but none have been able to do both. We believed that there is a big opportunity to leverage this trend in a way that is transparent and responsible. … So health Union was born.

Jane: Why Migraine.com?

Tim: We conducted an exhaustive search for the right first project. To properly capitalize upon the “search” side of our strategy, we felt strongly that we needed a URL that was a perfect match for the primary search term, in this case “migraine”. Having such a URL, along with high-quality content, gives us a leg up in search engine positioning. The direct match URL is by no means the end-all for search positioning, but it does give us an inside track to top rankings. So there were a limited number of choices available as many of the “disease.com” URLs were not available. When we discovered that migraine.com was available and we researched the condition, we realized that it was a perfect fit for our first project. Migraine is a disease with highly acute symptomatic attacks that affects 34 million Americans, and impacts women more than men. Considering that women tend to take more control of their healthcare than men, and that there is no cure for migraine (which leads to a lot of searching, interaction and the potential for misinformation) we felt that Migraine represented a great opportunity to provide outstanding content and community online. Since delving in to the condition, we have grown to truly empathize with the Migraine patient. Additionally, we have discovered so many wonderful patients, bloggers and physician experts who were willing to help and working with them is a joy.

Jane: Aren’t there other websites that cover headaches? Why the need for yet another portal?

Tim: Despite the prominence of migraine in the population, there were no prominent verticals (like dLife in diabetes, or SpineUniverse for back pain) related to migraine that stood out. There are some nice sections dedicated to migraine within larger general health and community sites, some of the associations have a significant web presence, but nothing with the extent and depth of physician-reviewed content and community elements that are found on migraine.com. There are some content sites that don’t have the community aspects and vice-versa. Additionally, our panel of physician expertshealthcare experts and patient advocates make sure we have a steady stream of content coming onto our platform. On that note, we prefer to use the term “platform” rather than “portal.” A portal implies a static web address where all of the content and tools are housed. We see the entire ecosystem, including the website, our Facebook page with its dedicated Facebook apps and 5,500+ followers, our Twitter activities and upcoming mobile apps as the “Migraine.com Platform” through which we engage patients, provide content and tools and encourage the free exchange of information.

Jane: What have been the most surprising lessons in the start-up phase of Migraine.com?

Tim: In a word: Facebook. We knew about the power and critical mass of Facebook, so we always intended that it would be a big piece of our puzzle. But we never expected it to explode as quickly as it did, both in terms of the quantity of people willing to engage our platform via Facebook and in terms of the quality of discussions and interaction occurring there. In the first 8 weeks, we were able to attract over 5,000 fans on Facebook and our number of interactions (pages views, etc) was actually higher on our Facebook page then on the site itself. So we have rapidly created a number of Facebook apps that tie back to tools and/or content that we created for the site. Additionally we are sure to post all new content on the site to the Facebook page as well. We see the integration of Facebook and the site— again into a “Migraine.com” branded platform— as a key success factor for us.

Additionally, we were also surprised to see that search engines have sent visitors for more than 4000 search queries to our site in the short time since we launched, which demonstrates that highly quality content and optimization along with social integration can yield high search engine results.

Jane: How do you see the site developing in the next year, without giving your strategy away?

Tim: We will continually improve all aspects of the platform based on rigorous performance monitoring and patient feedback. As mentioned earlier, we are working on delivering all of our proprietary tools via Smart Phone apps, and we will create those apps to be fully integrated with the data and tools on the rest of the platform. While we will always maintain the highest level of individual patient privacy, we see sharing aggregated data across the platform as a unique way to bring value to our users. We also see an opportunity to activate the community to do something to support the overall cause to support the many unmet needs of the larger migraine community.

Jane: What’s next? More conditions? More tools?

Tim: Yes and yes! We have a number of different avenues we can pursue, including additional conditions that have similar “social ready” characteristics. We also see a big opportunity in applying the learnings from Migraine.com to develop a similar platform for community and information about medicines in general.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  Migraines, for sufferers, caregivers and employers/health plan sponsors, among among the most frustrating conditions to manage day-to-day.  For both professional and personal reasons, I’m happy to welcome this community to the ever-growing online health milieu. While many existing sites have migraine and pain groups, there’s some heavy lifting required to synthesize information and tools from one portal to another. As migraneurs already know all too well, managing migraine is as much art as science — in a single day, a migraineur can ingest several kinds of medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, and undertake a variety of lifestyle choices to manage or stave off the pain.

This kind of pain has become part of my family’s life very recently, and so I am keen to dig into the tools, information, and discussions on this site. As I learn more, I will report back here on Health Populi. For now, I’m ready to kick the tires, open the hood, and experience this site for myself as a caregiver.