How crowds, not doctors or supercomputers, could diagnose rare diseases

When it comes to serious medical conditions, you probably want a doctor – or at least a medically trained supercomputer – delivering your diagnosis. But CrowdMed, a startup launched in public beta at TEDMED on Tuesday, is showing that the collective intelligence of the crowd can be just as good at getting to the bottom of medical mysteries.

For patients hoping to uncover the causes behind frustrating or painful symptoms, doctors and specialists have long been the most trusted resources.  Supercomputer Watson, predictive modeling techniques and other kinds of artificial intelligence are increasingly revealing their diagnostic power. But CrowdMed co-founder Jared Heyman believes there’s a third option that’s not getting the attention it deserves.

“I think a crowd can combine the best aspects of an individual expert with the best aspects of an artificial intelligence solution,” he told me. Crowds can blend an individual’s sense of intuition and judgment with a computer’s ability to process large amounts of information, Heyman added.

On CrowdMed, users can choose to “submit a case” or “solve a case.” To submit a case, patients describe their situation, including their symptoms, medical history, family history and other reports. “Medical detectives,” who want to try to solve the case, share their thoughts on potential causes and then place bets on the diagnosis they think is correct.

Before launching CrowdMed, Heyman founded InfoSurv, a market research company that uses predictive market technology. Building on that idea, CrowdMed analyzes the feedback from the crowd to generate diagnostic suggestions.

Patients seeking a diagnosis pay $199, as well as a $20 deposit, which is refunded when patients provide their final correct diagnosis. Detectives are rewarded with cash, prizes and status on an internal leaderboard, so they’re incentivized to participate only when they really believe they can productively contribute, Heyman said. In 20 test cases on Crowdmed, he added, the site’s detectives came up with the correct diagnosis every time.

Heyman said the idea for CrowdMed came from his sister’s recent three-year quest to understand an undiagnosed condition. After visiting more than a dozen doctors and accumulating more than $100,000 in medical bills, she was finally diagnosed with a very rare disease. In a test, CrowdMed came to the same conclusion in a matter of days and at a fraction of the cost.

In addition to opening up to the public, CrowdMed disclosed that had raised $1.1 million from investors including New Enterprsise Associates, Andresseen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, Y Combinator and SV Angel.

While the company plans to expand and build out its product, Heyman said the funding is largely intended to give the company some runway.

“For the company to take off, it will take nothing short of a cultural shift for people to recognize the vast wisdom of crowds. It’s not about individual experts, it’s about intellectually diverse teams collaborating to solve a problem,” said Heyman. “And I don’t know how long it will take for that notion to become accepted wisdom.”

Image by cifotart via Shutterstock.