Better Than Dr. House: Q&A with Jared Heyman

In his TEDMED talk, entrepreneur Jared Heyman revealed how crowd wisdom can help solve even the most elusive medical mysteries. We got in touch with Jared to ask about what inspired his work, and for any tips he has to share with other innovators.

Jared speaking at TEDMED 2014
Jared speaking at TEDMED 2014

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from it?

Hyper-specialization in medicine has created a world where no doctor can possibly know everything, yet we still hold onto the “Dr. House” archetype – the idea that a physician should be an omniscient genius who can single-handedly solve even the most challenging medical mystery. The reality is that crowds are wiser than even the smartest individual in the world, so long as the right mechanism is in place to aggregate their collective intelligence. That is the biggest takeaway from my talk.

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

We all have an inner voice that guides our life path, yet it’s often drowned out by the noise of others’ expectations of us. Take some time off to listen to that voice, whether through meditation, a weekend retreat, or an extended sabbatical if you can afford the time and expense. I took off two years to travel the world and listen to my inner voice, and I emerged from it with a crystal clear vision of what my next company (and my life) should become.

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

My inspiration to start CrowdMed was my little sister Carly, who spent 3 years with an unsolved medical mystery that nearly killed her. Over the period, our parents brought her to 16 different medical specialists and racked up over $100,000 in medical bills, desperately seeking a diagnosis. Each doctor would treat her symptoms as best they could, but none could identify the root cause of her illness. We’d later discover that she had a rare disease that affects just 1 in 15,000 females. Her doctors had never heard of it, much less seen it.  

Having spent years studying “the wisdom of crowds”, I knew that intellectually diverse online crowds could help solve cases like hers much more quickly than individual experts, but existing online tools like medical forums and social networks just weren’t built to aggregate their collective intelligence. I therefore created an early prototype of what eventually became CrowdMed, and using this system, a hundred people came up with her correct diagnosis in just few days and at negligible cost. That’s when I devoted myself full-time to founding the company.  

Do you have any recommended reading for people who are interested in your topic and want to learn more?

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki.   

This week in Catalyst: New methods for tapping into Hive wisdom

Catalyst is a blog series about innovation in health and medicine, with a focus on start-ups and entrepreneurs. This week, we continue our focus on companies that participated in The Hive at TEDMED 2013. 

Brilliant ideas can go a long way in driving progress, but their power is only realized if they are discovered, shared, and replicated.

The latter is all too often the sticking point in science, and the community has of late been worrying that reproducibility may be its Achilles’ heel.

The latter is all too often the sticking point in science, and the community has of late been worrying that reproducibility may be its Achilles’ heel.  For one, funding sources for scientists emphasize exploring new theories rather than confirming existing results.  Additionally, many studies don’t specify procedures or controls with precision, making reproducing those studies difficult or impossible.

Why not establish an entity that independently tests findings? Elizabeth Iorns co-founded Science Exchange, which is an online portal that helps scientists collaborate on projects by ordering experiments from other labs who have already mastered the necessary techniques. With the mechanics in place, Iorns went on to start a related project, The Reproducibility Initiative, which offers researchers an opportunity to have their studies independently replicated by labs affiliated with Science Exchange. Results will be published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

“We’re getting people to comment on our proposed plans, and we’re also going to ask folks to evaluate the data as well,” Iorns says. “We want to encourage experts to comment on scientific papers they’re knowledgeable about.”

That may be an uphill battle, she admits, as journal papers don’t usually attract comments. But here too, the science community is taking action; in another effort to stir conversation, PubMed launched a platform to allow users to comment last autumn.

In October, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation awarded the Reproducibility Initiative US$1.3 million to validate 50 high-impact cancer findings published between 2010 and 2012. Study authors have welcomed the reviews.

“People have responded very positively. There’s a lot of focus in the moment in making sure that our science is really rigorous. We’re not treating this like we’re checking up on them; we’re saying this is a chance to replicate findings,” Iorns says.

The “Bloomberg for Doctors”

As mentioned on our Great Challenges Google+ Hangout on faster adoption of best practices, establishing evidence-based behaviors in clinics can take as long as 17 years, according to one review, resulting in poorer outcomes and some $3 trillion in wasteful spending. And the prevailing method for sourcing current research doesn’t help: Combing through hundreds of journals; juggling log-ins; negotiating firewalls.

The Docphin interface
The Docphin interface

Docphin – the “doctor’s personalized health information network” is a free site and mobile app that sifts through more than 5,000 journals and recommends content tailored to a user’s interests, highlighting trending topics. TechCrunch called it a “Bloomberg for Doctors.” Providers can save PDFs and share articles with colleagues. Despite the oft-repeated slur that doctors are slow to uptake new technology, the company reports that 75% of its engagement is via mobile devices.

“Docphin’s hospital platform was in beta at UPenn for the first six months.  During the initial pilot we found that while using Docphin’s platform, providers accessing medical research in the clinical setting grew by 50% and compliance with hospital protocols more than doubled,” co-founder Mitesh Patel told Medgadget.

Co-founder Sachin Nanavati reports that Docphin is now being used at 350 institutions in over 15 countries. The company also began licensing its hospital platform to a select group of large academic medical centers that include Columbia, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Geisinger, and UPenn.

Mystery Symptoms? Call the “Medical Detectives”

Your doctor just can’t seem to put her finger on what’s causing your flushed face and achy joints, so you mention your symptoms to a few friends, hoping that someone knows someone who has had the same problems. What if you could turn to a web site and ask thousands of people for help at once?

CrowdMed puts medical questions to the people, because if you amass a sizeable group of doctors and patients, surely someone has seen those pesky, outlandish symptoms and may suggest a novel diagnosis. The web site has so far recruited over 5,000 “medical detectives” — no degree necessary — who weigh in on unsolved cases and bet which diagnosis are correct. CrowdMed uses a predictive algorithm to select the top choices, which patients can present for a clinician’s consideration. Detectives who correctly diagnose a disease can win cash rewards posted by hopeful patients.

Founder Jared Heyman, who worked in market research firm Infosurv before starting CrowdMed, says the company has now solved over 120 medical cases using the wisdom of crowds, including pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders, Lyme disease and fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency.  He came up with the idea for CrowdMed after it took three years for doctors to pinpoint his sister’s potentially fatal disease. Heyman later tested the case on CrowdMed; it was solved in three weeks.


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