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When Crowds Are Smarter Than Doctors

When Crowds Are Smarter Than Doctors

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.


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

Jared Heyman

Author: Jared Heyman

Jared Heyman is the founder and CEO of CrowdMed, a healthcare startup focused on crowdsourced medical diagnosis and aiding doctors. The company is backed by top Silicon Valley venture capital firms including NEA, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, SV Angel, Khosla Ventures & Y Combinator. The idea behind CrowdMed came from Heyman’s personal experience seeing his younger sister endure a serious medical mystery that spanned more than three years, dozens of doctors and specialists, and over $100,000 in medical expenses before the condition (a rare genetic disorder) was finally diagnosed and she could receive treatment. Combining prediction market technologies and crowdsourcing, CrowdMed has developed to help people like Jared’s sister get the medical answers they need. Heyman was formerly a consultant at Bain & Company, graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Texas at Austin with majors in Business Honors and Marketing, was featured on the cover of Inc. magazine in November 2011, and has also served as a guest lecturer at several major universities.