Healthcare / Technology

Healthcare Gets More Social

Traditionally, healthcare was restricted only to highly trained individuals and researchers who worked on their own or with other specialists. Today, however, social media and smartphones are allowing the general population to get more involved with the healthcare industry. Listed below are some interesting examples of how this phenomenon, called crowdsourcing, is improving patient diagnosis, scientific research, and public health initiatives.

Patient Diagnosis

While physicians are able to diagnose and treat most illnesses, some patients – despite seeing multiple doctors – are unable to find solutions to their problems. CrowdMed, a crowdsourcing service, brings “medical detectives” (laypeople and physicians) together online to solve these types of complicated cases. Many of the “medical detectives” are retired physicians with decades of knowledge who want to stay engaged and help others without the hassle of maintaining an active practice and dealing with stresses like paperwork.

The average patient using CrowdMed has been sick for eight years, has seen eight doctors, and has incurred $50,000 in healthcare expenses. Eager for a solution, the patient registers his or her case through the service and provides a patient history, detailed symptoms, and any lab tests. The “medical detectives” then offer probable diagnoses. The diagnosis with the highest rating from the detectives is released to the patient, who then discusses the diagnosis further with his or her physician. Jared Heyman, the founder of CrowdMed, states that his service has helped 50 percent of users come closer to a cure.

There are many other similar crowdsourcing services that help with patient diagnosis. One interesting service is Grand Round Table (GRT), a clinical decision support tool. GRT, which is integrated into the electronic health record, helps physicians consult a vast database of various illnesses and treatment options that other physicians administered. The service removes the ambiguity from certain diagnoses and helps medical centers offer cost-effective, efficient care.

Scientific Research

One problem with traditional scientific research is that research groups can reach an impasse in an area of study or can fail to find useful results for years. Contrary to this old, closed method of innovation, crowdsourcing can be a quick, effective way to send thousands of people in all different directions to search for a solution to a problem. Organizations such as InnoCentive help companies and non-profits solve difficult questions by offering prize money to people around the world for submitting solutions to certain challenges. InnoCentive has been particularly successful in this space. Their crowdsourcing efforts helped to discover a biomarker for ALS for Prize4Life and an algorithm for predicting cancer survival rates for the Cleveland Clinic.

Another organization that participates in medical crowdsourcing is PatientsLikeMe. Primarily, this service allows patients to compare symptoms, discuss different responses to treatments, and find organizations that can help them with their conditions. PatientsLikeMe then aggregates self-reported information from 250 thousand members on two thousand diseases and sells it to various health organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic research centers, who then use the information to improve their products, services, and health care. Researchers can also conduct large scale surveys through PatientsLikeMe and their sister site Open Research Exchange.

Public Health Initiatives

Social media has been a tremendous help to public health organizations, specifically as they attempt to map outbreaks of infectious diseases. Services such as HealthMap and NCB-Prepared use formal and informal (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) sources to detect outbreaks and provide real-time surveillance of any possible epidemics. Similarly, HealthMap’s sister organization, Flu Near You encourages people to report any symptoms of illness weekly, so that patterns of influenza can be mapped.

The effects of crowdsourcing are encouraging. In 2010, Twitter helped reveal a cholera outbreak in Haiti, two weeks before the Haitian health ministry issued a report. Similarly, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) – Health Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response – helped to avert epidemics of SARS in 2005 and bird flu in 2010 months before World Health Organization (WHO) was alerted.


Critics of crowdsourcing state that the quality of information obtained cannot be gauged accurately, due to the large amounts of inaccurate information collected. While this may be true, research is currently being conducted on how to glean important information from the massive amounts of incoming data. As research continues in this field, crowdsourcing technology will inevitably improve and will yield highly accurate results. Crowdsourcing has been an important addition to the healthcare industry – especially in patient diagnosis, scientific research, and public health initiatives. Combining the highly technical world of medicine with the modern addition of crowdsourcing is increasingly becoming the future of healthcare.