With continued advances in technology, improvements in telecommunications systems, and the ubiquitous nature of affordable mobile devices, crowdsourcing is taking on an increasingly important role across many industries — including healthcare. In addition to the clinical benefits that can be achieved, this innovative trend also promises a variety of positive business outcomes. Here contributor Julie Potyraj, an MPH candidate at George Washington University and the MPH@GW Community Manager, takes a closer look at what crowdsourcing is, examples of current uses in healthcare, and what areas could benefit from using it to increase effectiveness in terms of cost reduction and improvements in healthcare efficiency:
Crowdsourcing refers to the outsourcing of a particular task to a wide range of people (quite often an online community like this one) to get a job done more efficiently. The premise is that aggregating perspectives, data, expertise, and experience from a variety of sources is better than counting on a single source to provide a solution for a problem or support for an initiative.
Generally, crowdsourcing has three main components:
- Identified tasks — such as product development, problem-solving, and innovation.
- An online or open call for work — which can be initiated by an individual, institution, or group.
- A large group of globally distributed people, aka “the crowd” — which is expected to possess the knowledge, skills, or experience that is needed.
Crowdsourcing in Healthcare
The idea of crowdsourcing in healthcare may seem implausible because it is a field characterized by high standards, rigorous education, and strict regulations. However, there are a number of ways that crowdsourcing is being used in the field to make a positive impact. Here are a few examples of current uses:
- Diagnosis and treatment to help deal with “medical mysteries” and facilitate more accurate and timely decision-making. One example of this is Grand Round Table, clinical decision support software that is integrated with electronic health records. The technology gives healthcare providers access to the collective intelligence of a pool of experts to optimize treatment plans for patients.
- Predicting and monitoring disease outbreaks, which enables earlier and more effective interventions than traditional methods. For example, Canada’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) helped prevent national pandemics—including SARS in 2003 and a bird flu in 2010—by detecting early outbreaks of these epidemics months before the World Health Organization (WHO) was able to.
- Working with data sets to enhance the power of analytics to meet both clinical and business needs. One example of this is CrowdFlower, which has teamed up with healthcare crowdsourcing platforms such as CrowdMed to analyze patient data for diagnosis, and also works across enterprise with companies such as eBay and Intuit.
- Enhancing patient engagement by empowering patients to be more involved in research and their own care. One well-established example is PatientsLikeMe, a global patient network of 400,000-plus members. Within this platform, members connect with others who have the same disease or condition to track and share information about their experiences. This dynamic helps generate data about the real-world nature of disease to help develop more effective products, services, and care.
With efforts like these, crowdsourcing is beginning to gain momentum in healthcare. The trends toward the consumerization of healthcare and an increased focus on population health are likely to further fuel its growth.
In a January 2015 MedCity News article, healthcare strategic advising firm TripleTree said they were tracking 35 “crowd-centric” health companies that were working across eight specific categories in healthcare:
- Clinical innovation
- Virtual visits
- Caregiver connectedness
- EMR and practice management
- Collaborative asset consumption
- Data visualization and sharing
- Collaborative learning, sharing, and social benefit
- Disease surveillance
Organizations and researchers on the cutting edge of crowdsourcing are figuring out how to address these categories.
For example, the team at HealthMap works to use crowdsourcing to identify health threats and protect people from them. Using real-time surveillance and a network of experts and social media sources, HealthMap and its 1 million+ annual visitors continuously collect information about public health threats through an automated process that gathers, organizes, and disseminates online information about emerging public health threats.
HealthMap has been so effective in crowdsourcing information that they were able to identify a cholera outbreak in Haiti two weeks before the country’s department of health and — most famously — identified the ebola outbreak in West Africa nine days before the WHO.
Armed with the up-to-date information that crowdsourcing can provide, individuals, and healthcare providers will be able to improve prevention and the efficiency of care provided. The ability to track information, not only about public health threats, but also about patient behavior, consumer choices, treatment costs, and provider options will continue to shape the way healthcare is both accessed and delivered.