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When Crowds Are Smarter Than Doctors

“My son feels like an old man. He suffers from constant, debilitating fatigue, painful body aches… he feels like he’s dying.”

Those are the words of a desperate mother. Her son Joseph had always been an active and athletic child, but starting at the age of 12, his health began to deteriorate inexplicably. Over the next 5 years, Joseph and his mother consulted with 14 different doctors, endured dozens of tests, and racked up more than $75,000 in medical expenses – but still couldn’t find answers.

Imagine that you’re the parent of this child. What do you do next? See more specialists? Consult Dr. Google? Pray?

My co-founders and I felt there must be a better way. So we built a website that harnesses “the wisdom of crowds” to help solve even the world’s most difficult medical cases; separating the signal from the noise of the Internet to help patients like Joseph, and others from around the world, to get the answers that the medical system just isn’t providing.

On our site, 42 case-solvers reached consensus that Joseph probably had Lyme disease, a diagnosis that had been ruled out by his physicians because a previous test result was negative. However the crowd noticed that the tests they had taken were old and inaccurate, and suggested a new one which confirmed Lyme disease as his correct diagnosis – leading to his successful treatment with antibiotics. While Joseph won’t be healed overnight, he’s feeling better than he has in years, and his mother credits the crowd with leading him to a cure.

We’ve seen that a diverse group including medical practitioners, students, researchers, scientists, and even other patients, can work together to successfully solve even the most challenging medical mysteries. In just the past year, we’ve crowdsourced answers for over 400 cases like Joseph’s. On average, these patients had been sick for 8 years, seen 8 doctors, and incurred more than $50,000 in medical expenses.

Despite the difficulty of their cases, more than half of these patients tell us that the crowd successfully brought them closer to a correct diagnosis or cure. The key is in how we structure the case-solving process:

  1. A variety of incentives, both tangible and intangible, motivate participation and encourage thoughtful suggestions.
  2. A reputation system assigns different levels of influence to case-solvers, depending on their prior performance and peer ratings, not their medical credentials.
  3. Online chat and discussion tools facilitate collaboration between the crowd and the patient, and the crowd members themselves, and
  4. A sophisticated point betting system helps weigh and rank the proposed answers.

Using these techniques, we’ve proven that crowds can be wiser than even the smartest doctor in the world, but only if their collective intelligence is harnessed in the right way. Though our website is the first to solve this technical challenge, it won’t be the last. In the future, crowdsourcing medical answers will be commonplace.

Joseph’s mother had assumed that an individual expert would solve her son’s case. But when she had no one else to turn to, when no one person could save her son, she instead turned to everyone, and it was everyone who found his cure. Thank you.

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This is a transcription of my talk at TEDMED 2014. I’d like to thank Amanda Rothstein, Thomas Krafft, Shirley Bergin, Nassim Assefi, Marcus Webb, and Alyssa Schaffer for helping to edit this talk. 

To learn more about CrowdMed, click here.


Image source: NEC Corporation of America