What can we learn from patients? Ex-Googler debuts health social network to find out

Patients typically learn from medical professionals, but a new startup wants to make it easier for patients to learn from themselves — and educate the rest of the industry in the process.

Launched Thursday by Google’s(s GOOG) former Chief Health Strategist Roni Zeiger, Smart Patients is an online community for cancer patients and caregivers that incorporates social networking and search technology.

“Given how many tools are accessible to everyone and how even scientific information is being democratized, there is now an impressive number of smart patients out there [and] we haven’t really thought about how to collaborate with them.,” Zeiger told me at this week’s TEDMED conference. “What can we learn from them to help take care of them and others better?”

While there are other online communities for patients, like PatientsLikeMe, as well as cancer-specific sites, Zeiger said Smart Patients differs in a couple of key ways.  For example, he said, given the important role clinical trials can play in a cancer patient’s treatment, the site includes a patient-friendly clinical trial search engine and it enables them to start conversations about those trials.

Additionally, while most other health-focused social networks and web communities – as well as most things in health care – tend to be siloed by disease, Smart Patients enables patients to follow conversations across their specific cancer and other kinds of cancers. That’s important, Zeiger said, because topics like bone metastasis or certain kinds of drugs may matter to patients with different kinds of cancers.

The free site will not include any advertising or marketing, but the company plans to conduct surveys and share anonymous patient insights with other health care companies, including biopharma companies, Zeiger said. For example, a current project with Oncosec Medical is working with a subset of the community to get patient feedback on how to design upcoming clinical trials of the biotech company’s skin cancer treatments.

Earlier this year, PatientsLikeMe announced that it had received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create an open research platform that enables patients to take part in the clinical research process. But, for the most part, patients don’t play a part in clinical trials until they’re already designed.

For the past three months, Smart Patients has been in private beta with a few hundred patients but, to help build the network, it’s launching Thursday with partners including The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and the non-profit Cancer Commons. While Zeiger said he doesn’t think Smart Patients’ model will fit with every disease, he added that if their approach is successful, they’ll likely expand beyond cancer. He also said that while the company has been self-funded to date, it’s planning to raise a seed round in the near future.

“Our core philosophy is to learn from patients,” Zeiger said. “And I think that’s going to help us build something really useful.”