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Doctor’s Orders

Two cutting-edge startups—ZocDoc and Help—are putting new twists on an industry that’s traditionally slow to innovate.

ZocDoc CEO Cyrus Massoumi at his offices in New York City. Launched in 2007, the company now serves 2.5 million patients across the country.

Help’s CEO Richard Fine, at the Ace Hotel, one of a handful of hip NYC properties where his products can be found

As a health care hub, New York City has never been known as easy to navigate. But a couple of inventive Manhattan-based companies are changing all that.

With its overabundance of physicians, Manhattan seems the perfect home for ZocDoc, an OpenTable-style site for making medical appointments.

ZocDoc founder and CEO Cyrus Massoumi started the company in 2007, after his eardrum burst on a cross-country flight and it took him four days to find a doctor who could see him. Not long after, he and his co-founders, Dr. Oliver Kharraz and Nick Ganju, came up with the idea of a website where consumers could research doctors—narrowing them by insurance, specialty, qualifications, location, gender, language and verified reviews—then book appointments online, usually for no more than 24 to 72 hours later. The company started in New York as a search aid for dentists only; today, ZocDoc helps more than 2.5 million patients across the country find physicians in 35 different specialties every month. “We perfected the model in New York,” Massoumi says. “We were able to really work the kinks out before we took the show on the road.”

This year, the company expanded operations to Phoenix, in part to have a backup system should NYC have another blackout. When Superstorm Sandy hit the city, shutting down so many New York-based servers, ZocDoc’s system succeeded beyond expectations: The company’s response times for inquiries coming in from doctors and patients was better than at any other time that year, according to Massoumi.

Now the company—whose hip downtown offices (featuring cartoon drawings of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and TV’s Dr. House high-fiving, a hammock and a lunch room where employees can play Street Fighter) are in the same Soho building as FourSquare and Thrillist—has also rolled out a feature called ZocDoc Check-in: “People can fill out their health care history just once, and never have to do it again,” Massoumi says. “It was the most requested feature on zocdoc.com.”

While ZocDoc is taking the pain out of booking medical appointments, Help Remedies is hoping to inject humor into buying over-the-counter pharmaceuticals with its line of products titled “Help,” whose capsule packages are emblazoned with lines like “Help, I have a headache,” “Help, I’m tired” and, most recently, “Help, I’m horny.”

The company, whose products are now sold citywide, really started with the name, says CEO Richard Fine, who founded it with friend and fellow NYC marketing exec Nathan Frank. Born into a family of medical professors, Fine had always been attuned to the health care industry. When Frank one day complained, “Help, I have a headache,” Fine replied, “That’s a great name for a company.” The phrase stuck with them, and they soon decided a company must follow.

“The original idea was to make medicine more human,” says Fine, a Brit who’s often found American pharmacies less than user-friendly, and thought easy-to-understand product names on cool packaging would appeal to young customers looking for a quick over-the-counter fix.

Help’s first partner was the Morgans Hotel Group—the boutique hotel firm behind the Hudson, Mondrian and Royalton—which was looking for medicines with a higher design concept for its in-room minibars. Next came Duane Reade, the company’s biggest client in the city. Since starting up in 2009, Help’s revenue has more than doubled each year.

Fittingly, Help’s sleek Flatiron office is on 28th Street, next door to the trendy Ace Hotel, which is also a company client. Along with the Morgans Hotel Group, The Standard, East Village Hotel and Bowery Hotel, the Ace now uses Help’s packages in their minibars to appeal to younger guests as a chic alternative to the typical Tylenol pack.

To adorn the products, Help’s employees come up with catchy phrases that are often pegged to current events, such as “Dear Gen. Petraeus, sorry about the romantic difficulties. Maybe this will help?” for its “Help, I have a headache” product, and “Dear Mitt, sorry about last night” (which appeared after the election) for its “Help, I’m nauseous.”

The next product to roll out: condoms. “Our hotels were asking for them, and we were hesitant, but we’ve finally come around with ‘Help, I’m horny,’” says Fine. The company also launched “Help, I have the flu,” a (mostly) more-fun-than-factual app aimed at letting users know who might have given them the flu by scanning their newsfeeds to find out which friends have reported flu-like symptoms, then cross-referencing that info with social habits, like going out to crowded parties.

Help’s choice of New York for its headquarters has paid off. “People don’t think of medical trends coming from here, but this is a city that embraces new concepts,” says Fine. And the company’s New York sales statistics have yielded some telling data.

The two best-selling products here: “Help, I can’t sleep” (“It’s part of a fast-paced life,” Fine says) and “Help, I have a blister”—a product he discovered was special to New York when he tried putting it at the front of Walgreens stores in the rest of the country, only to have it sell poorly. “It turned out that in the rest of the country nobody walks and nobody wears high heels.”