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Next wave of physician crowdsourcing in healthcare: Treating patients?

Crowdsourcing physicians' opinions online may be the future of patient care, but not before liability and reimbursement issues are settled.

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The concept of crowdsourcing is difficult to apply when it comes to today's patient care standards. Protected health information must be handled with care. It can't be blasted publicly on the Internet for the entire world to read and share. However, if patient information could be shared and discussed in a protected online environment with a group of medical professionals, then perhaps the concept of crowdsourcing in healthcare for the purpose of treatment could be realized.

Crowdsourcing isn't the same as visiting different physicians to get a second or third opinion. The patient would be getting multiple opinions by crowdsourcing. The participating physicians and medical professionals would either agree or disagree with the opinions voiced by other healthcare providers. These virtual votes would feed the algorithm that would make diagnostic and treatment decisions for each patient.

Other platforms like CrowdMed make the process of unraveling a medical mystery similar to a team sport where each clinician is looking for clues and asking questions to assign the correct diagnosis. The collective brainpower of thousands of trained medical professionals could shorten the time it takes to accurately assign a medical diagnosis, especially for patients with rare diseases and conditions. Most people would not know if they have a rare or unusual disease unless they have already spent considerable time seeking multiple medical opinions and traveling around the country to see different specialists.

Although the concept of crowdsourcing in healthcare may seem novel and useful, there are some major barriers and unanswered questions that hinder the widespread use of this approach. The two biggest barriers are the challenges associated with reimbursement and liability.

Reimbursement

Patient-to-patient communication and care engagement

Online groups are a place for patients to share experiences

Those with chronic conditions less likely to research care via the Internet

Mobile devices aiding management of illnesses

Physicians expect to get reimbursed for the time they spend diagnosing and treating patients. Whether they review a patient's chart, examine radiology test results, or otherwise examine a patient, physicians expect some form of reimbursement. The simplest method would be to provide direct payment in the form of cash for physicians to contribute their opinion to a crowdsourcing platform, but he problem with this idea is that most patients fall back on their insurance plan to cover the bulk of their medical expenses. Although some interesting reimbursement models are available for patients who are able to pay cash, this only targets a small percentage of the population.

Liability

What is the liability risk for a physician who offers an opinion about a patient's care if the physician has never established a relationship with that patient? There is no clear answer to this question right now. Many physicians remain reluctant to offer any comments online that suggest they are providing medical advice to a patient. Then again, there are online communities for physicians where the discussions are fairly casual, hypothetical or educational in nature. In those environments, physicians openly discuss diagnostic dilemmas and patient treatment options to teach each other and share their insights based on their real-world experiences.

Perhaps the greatest healthcare crowdsourcing opportunity is to design and conduct a research study evaluating the effectiveness of a human crowdsourcing model against a computerized artificial intelligence model powered by a supercomputer like IBM Watson. The medical community could compare the results and see which approach leads to the best medical care for patients with rare or challenging conditions. Such a study may find the combination approach of a crowdsourcing model augmented with IBM Watson will lead to the best treatment decisions and clinical outcomes.

About the author:
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion for leveraging health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of NonClinicalJobs.com and is an active social media specialist.

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was first published in March 2014

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