From the real "Silicon Valley," crowdsourcing a medical diagnosis

My new guilty pleasure is “Silicon Valley,” the HBO series in which everyone from a billionaire mogul, to an ER doctor, to a BevMo clerk, is hawking a tech product on the verge of “making the world a better place.”

The character Gavin Belson, chief innovation officer at “Hooli” blithely reveals commercial-driven reality by proclaiming: “If we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller.”

But a group of real-life innovators with Silicon Valley experience in their bios has launched a crowdsourcing product that the idealist in me wants to believe is a counterpoint to parodies in the show.

CrowdMed’s website says it is “revolutionizing healthcare by harnessing 'the wisdom of crowds' to help solve even the world's most difficult medical cases quickly and accurately online.”

If you are having trouble figuring out a medical issue, you can plug your symptoms into the site and see what CrowdMed has to say.

CrowdMed says it taps “Medical Detectives” for “astonishingly accurate and insightful diagnostic suggestions,” and then uses a patented algorithm to arrive at a prediction.

I won’t pretend to be anywhere near as digi-savvy as those behind the effort. I recall the excitement of unpacking my first Smith-Corona more fondly than I do my first MacBook.

But even an old-school reporter knows the importance of gathering diverse, expert opinions – let’s call it sourcing without the crowd.

Critics will certainly point out some concerns. What about medical liability? What about privacy? And who are these Medical Detectives, anyway?

The company offers an explanation on its FAQs page, and its leader is forthright about the qualifications of its Medical Detectives.

CrowdMed founder and CEO Jared Heyman told me in an email: “We don't screen Medical Detectives based upon formal credentials, but rather give the most weight to those Detectives who have proven adept at solving previous cases. Our incentive structure is such that a Detective has no reason to participate in a case unless they're confident they have the right knowledge to solve it.

“We've found that many of our best-performing Detectives are not licensed physicians,” he said.

There are about 200 Medical Detectives actively engaging the site, said Heyman. Their assessments are intended to guide, not replace, a person’s primary doctor.

The self-reported backgrounds of the Medical Detectives are rounded to:

Medical Student - 48%

Physician - 24%

Other specialty - 10%

Scientist - 5%

Nurse - 4%

Lab Technologist - 3% 

Medical Educator - 3%

Pharmacist - 3%

Physical Therapist - 1%

Traveling up and down California for the Center for Health Reporting the past few years in pursuit of our cornerstone -- in-depth reporting -- I’ve seen first-hand the crushing impact of an inaccurate diagnosis. And how difficult it is to secure an appointment for a second opinion, let alone gather hundreds of medical opinions.

So add me to the list of old-school reporters – Wall St. Journal and CBS News included -- who have found CrowdMed intriguing and looked into it.

You start the process by depositing $50 and explaining your issue. Some Medical Detectives might respond, but CrowdMed is really built around a bonus system. If you want to attract more and better medical opinions, CrowdMed recommends you offer Medical Detectives a reward if they provide an accurate diagnosis.

The average cash reward offered is $200, the highest to date is $1,000 and the lowest is $15. If you alert CrowdMed that you have received a useful opinion, you can reclaim your $50 deposit.

CrowdMed keeps 10 percent of the rewards as commission.

If you are a med student or physician, you’re after that reward in exchange for your valuable time. If you’re a patient, you’re hoping the reward is the draw to solve your medical problem.

Is medical crowdsourcing on the verge of “making the world a better place?” CrowdMed says 230 patient cases have been resolved through their system since its launch last April.

Hands off, Gavin.

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