Strength in numbers?

Crowdsourcing health care: Startup’s ‘medical detectives’ tackle cases online

CrowdMed users submit their medical history online and receive diagnostic suggestions—but not all doctors are fans.

It took almost three years and more than $100,000 in medical bills before Carly Heyman’s chronic health problems were diagnosed as a rare disease. Her experience inspired her older brother, Jared Heyman, to found CrowdMed, a company that’s bringing crowdsourcing to health care.

Crowdsourcing is the harnessing of a number of individuals, often online, to reach a goal. After sharing their stories and medical information on the CrowdMed website, patients receive diagnostic suggestions from the site’s “medical detectives” that they can pursue with their real-life physicians.

CrowdMed founder Jared Heyman

How it works

After a two-week free trial, CrowdMed patients pay $149-$749 per month to attract attention from the site’s medical detectives, who are paid for solving cases. Each case is overseen by a licensed physician; though around 60% of CrowdMed’s medical detectives work in or study health care, it’s not a requirement. Medical detectives aren’t legally liable for incorrect diagnostic suggestions, according to the company, because patients agree beforehand that no clinician-patient relationships are formed on the site.

Once a case is resolved, the medical detectives whose suggestions led to a correct diagnosis are each given a cut—$400 on average—of the money put up by the patient. So far, CrowdMed has provided more than 1,500 patients with a list of personalized diagnostic suggestions to discuss further with their physician.

Being a medical detective

A CrowdMed medical detective since 2013, Ohio-based orthopedic researcher Kyle Walker, MD, acknowledges the challenges of offering diagnostic suggestions without conducting a physical examination or having access to labs or diagnostic imaging. But helping patients who’ve spent years searching for a diagnosis is highly rewarding, he notes.

Kyle Walker, MD

“Some CrowdMed patients have fairly obvious diagnoses that are simply being overlooked,” Dr. Walker explains. “Teaching them how to share pertinent information and ask relevant questions of their physician is key to helping them achieve the appropriate diagnosis.”

Other patients may benefit from suggestions to consult a new specialist. One of Dr. Walker’s CrowdMed cases involved a patient who’d had a persistent cough for more than 20 years and had consulted several pulmonologists without success. Dr. Walker suspected neurogenic cough—a chronic disorder of neurological origin—and suggested the patient visit a neurologist. Two weeks later, the neurologist had prescribed medication to treat the condition and the patient reported a 50% reduction in symptoms.

‘A few concerns’

Although the concept of crowdsourced medical consultations might alarm some physicians, company founder Heyman says CrowdMed isn’t trying to displace the doctor-patient relationship. “Our goal is to provide insightful ideas patients can discuss with their physician to make their next appointment more productive,” he says.

But not all physicians are sold on CrowdMed. “As untrendy as this sounds, behind clinic doors, these patient-physician relationships continue to be an incredibly powerful force,” Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD, told USA Today in a 2015 article on CrowdMed.

Michael R. Brown, DO

Family medicine physician Michael R. Brown, DO, who uses telemedicine frequently in his practice, says patients are increasingly seeking diagnostic information online, whether it’s a patient sharing a case on CrowdMed or a parent posting a photo of their child’s rash on social media to see if friends can identify the cause.

“There are a few concerns about services such as CrowdMed—patients should always consider the reliability of where they’re getting their health information,” says Dr. Brown, the assistant chief medical informatics officer at Mosaic Life Care in northwest Missouri. “At the same time, CrowdMed is clearly meeting a need that patients feel is not being met, so as physicians, we should seek to identify that need and help our patients achieve it in a safe manner.”

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