High unemployment and rising health-care costs have left many Americans uninsured over the last few years. But that doesn’t mean cash-strapped consumers can’t access professional advice from doctors and specialists—there are a variety of websites and medical forums available to answer specific questions and offer medical advice. 

HealthTap, a free online service and mobile app, connects patients with medical questions with licensed physicians. Experts warn that talking online to a doctor doesn’t replace a live office visit, but the service can help uninsured Americans with potential diagnosis, treatments and advice.  

 “More than one out of five Americans are uninsured,” says Ron Gutman, chief executive of HealthTap. “Which means they don’t have access to doctors or the health-care system.”

According to data from the Census Bureau in 2010, Americans made an average of 3.9 visits to the doctor, down from 4.8 visits in 2001. What’s more, only 24% of uninsured Americans went to the doctor at least once in 2010.

Concerned consumers have been hopping online to search about a potential illness or health worry, but the results have left them more confused. Message boards are often 0anonymous so consumers don’t know the legitimacy behind an answer.

Services like HealthTap aren’t going to solve the problem of rising health-care costs, but they do provide a safe and secure way for consumers to get health advice from reliable sources. “It’s replacing these websites and message boards with trust worthy, personalized health information,” says Gutman.

Once users sign up with HealthTap, they can post a question anonymously to the network of more than 15,000 doctors. The answers are peer reviewed: Doctors rate the answers to give consumers a consensus. The site covers 116 specialties and has doctors represented in all 50 states. Questions tend to be answered within minutes or less than 24 hours. Consumers can also pay $9.99 to ask a doctor a question in a private, secure mode where the patient can share specific information like medical records or pictures. HealthTap says questions asked in the paid mode are answered within 72 hours. “It’s one-third the cost of the average co-payment even if you have insurance,” says Gutman.

Doctors aren’t paid to be a part of the HealthTap network, but Gutman says the potential to land new patients is an incentive.

 “It’s safe for them to create a reputation online,” says Gutman. “It’s not a rating site where doctors get rated on the décor in the waiting room or how nice the receptionist is. They are rated by other doctors on HealthTap.”  He also claims that nearly all of the doctors that use the service have added new patients.

In order for a doctor to join the HealthTap network he or she has to be licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. and be in good standing, which mean there can’t be any sanctions against the doctor or any open malpractice suits. The network is either by invitation or via an application.

HealthTap was founded about a year-and-a-half ago with just pediatricians and obstetricians.  Gutman admits it was hard convincing doctors that the service would work when it first launched, but letting them have a say and offer advice lured them in. “Were trying to bring medicine to the 21st century,” says Gutman. “Were creating a new paradigm that changes everything about health care and doctors.”