Not alone in a crowd: Crowdsourcing for healthcare

By Karl Strohmeyer
02:26 PM

An interesting trend I’ve noticed developing is the use of crowdsourcing to drive innovations in healthcare and manage the complexities of the industry. I decided to take a closer look when I saw it emerge as a topic at this year’s TEDMED conference.

It might seem surprising that crowdsourcing has entered healthcare, a field defined by its rigorous training requirements, increased specialization and endless layers of regulation. But, the challenges currently faced by providers, patients and researchers cry out for collective problem-solving on the largest possible scale.

After all, crowdsourcing already is used to help find missing persons, attempt to answer life’s vexing questions, pick stocks – and to select our President. Why not employ crowdsourcing to help our multi-trillion-dollar healthcare industry?

Many of the uses of crowdsourcing in healthcare today are fueled by connectivity (often global) and require high levels of bandwidth and security.

For instance, crowdsourcing is being used for diagnosis and treatment, especially for medical mysteries. It’s helping scientists collaborate on large-scale health projects, such as pandemics. One example of this is Grand Round Table, where physicians post difficult cases to seek help from a secure, intimate group (roundtable) of colleagues. The platform can help doctors and health systems save time and money by directing doctors to appropriate solutions, reducing the number of unnecessary tests, ineffective treatments, and consultations.

Experts also are turning to crowdsourcing as a faster alternative to traditional methods for predicting and monitoring infectious disease outbreaks. In Haiti in 2010, for example, informal sources, such as news reports, discussion groups and Twitter, revealed a cholera outbreak’s dynamics two weeks before the health ministry issued its report.

Crowdsourcing also is beginning to crack the code on managing the ever-escalating costs of healthcare. It’s being used in the field of medical transcription, a process where written records and notes are translated into an electronic form, entered into a database, and used in the wider-spread arena of documenting the occurrence and frequency of specific illnesses. Over time, the billing and coding processes for medical transcription have become increasingly complicated and byzantine. Crowdsourcing has created a wider base of transcriptionists who can be trained at home and online, and, ultimately, perform the work on a more cost-effective basis.

Online tools like surveys demonstrate how crowdsourcing in health IT can meet the challenge of information overload while capitalizing on abundant data. It’s becoming clear that the rate of data being generated about healthcare and patients and research far outpaces the ability of individuals to keep up with all the information.

Some interesting and innovative companies already are using crowdsourcing to enhance the patient – physician experience.

  • CrowdMed, which announced $1 million in venture capital funds at TEDMED, charges patients a $199 fee to list their case and receive input to the a possible diagnosis. Patients fill out a “patient questionnaire” that details their symptoms, case history and personal information. Once a case is posted, the crowd (“MDs,” which stands in this case for “medical detectives”) can review the patient’s information and offer up what they believe is a likely diagnosis. Nearly 3,000 people have signed up as medical detectives, including doctors and residents.
  • Webicina is a site where medicine combines with social media to allow physicians across the world to communicate their findings easily, quickly and effectively.
  • PatientsLikeMe allows individuals with certain health conditions to share and compare their symptoms and responses to different treatments. The site offers an Open Research Exchange platform that allows researchers to develop, test and conduct surveys within the site’s community of more than 200,000 members.

These are just a few examples. The point is technology, networking, connectivity and bandwidth are supporting innovative new trends in healthcare. And that’s something to keep an eye on.