Internet crowdsourcing helps solve some medical mysteries

Not all patients going online to tap the “wisdom of the crowd” for help with difficult diagnoses find what they seek. But a new study shows that some surely do, coming away with medical guidance more helpful than what they got from their own physicians.

Ashley N.D. Meyer, PhD, of Baylor and colleagues found as much when they analyzed nearly 400 cases submitted to, and completed on, the crowdsourcing website between May 2013 and April 2015.

Their research report is running in the current edition of the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Prior to bringing their vexations to CrowdMed, the participating patients had visited a median of five physicians, incurred a median of $10,000 in medical expenses, spent a median of 50 hours researching their illnesses online and had symptoms for a median of 2.6 years.

Some 357 “case solvers” contributed to the diagnostic efforts.

The majority—208 solvers, 58.3 percent—worked or studied in the medical industry.  

The helps they provided included interactive discussions, and the efforts produced detailed reports, care pathway suggestions and surveys on outcomes.

Meyer and team report that:

  • 59.6 percent of patients indicated that the process gave insights that led them closer to the correct diagnoses;
  • 57 percent said they saw decreases in medical expenses; and
  • 38 percent claimed improvement in school or work productivity.

Moreover, the majority (50.9 percent) said they were likely to recommend CrowdMed to a friend.

In acknowledging the limitations of their methodology, the authors note that their post-participation survey was “rather limited in scope as it was designed for business purposes and not for research.”

Plus patient-reported data could not be verified—and some of it seemed iffy indeed. For example, one patient reported spending 12,000 hours researching illnesses online.

And, of course, if crowdsourcing were to be incorporated into medical practices’ operations, the legal ramifications of giving non-doctors a major say in guiding care would have to be taken into account, the authors point out.

Still, they conclude, novel approaches are needed “to help patients who experience difficulties in obtaining a correct and timely diagnosis.

“In that regard, advantages of using the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ could include low cost, increased program accessibility for patients, and relatively quick opinions.”

The full study is posted online.