Welcome to the future: crowd-diagnosing.
Want to know if a particular kind of medication is likely to stop your cancer from spreading? There’s an ap for that. More specifically, there’s a social media network dedicated to crowd-testing medications and conditions, and the social media network has an app. At least it probably will in the future.
It’s one of the most mysterious and vaunted ideas of the financial industry: the wisdom of the crowd. They even have a principle for it. The “efficiency principle” of markets states the while the judgement of any one expert analyzing markets can be flawed, the aggregate judgement of the masses tend to gauge supply and demand perfectly, such that market prices achieve “perfect efficiency”—neither over-valued or undervalued.
While the notion of crowd-sourcing in finance is ancient, in medicine it’s still a barely a glimmer. The omnipotent (or at least omniscient) doctor is still entrusted with singular judgement when it comes to his patients. Sure, there are specialists, and patients are welcome to seek second and third opinions if they’re not happy with their first. But this is fundamentally different than offloading judgement from any single individual and rather onto a process comprised of many different people.
But today the Wall Street Journal offers a glimpse into what could be an important part of how all kinds of conditions are treated in the future. In studying the potential use of lithium in treating ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) researches sourced test candidates through the social media network PatientsLikeMe.
“More than 4,300 patients are on the PatientsLikeMe ALS site, where they frequently share information on how their disease is progressing and strategies they are using to fight it,” writes the Journal. “PatientsLikeMe developed an algorithm that matched 149 patients taking lithium with at least one other ALS patient on the site who didn’t take the drug. A total of 447 patients were among this group that researchers considered controls.”
The study found conclusively that lithium is not effective in combatting ALS. But what it also found is that crowd-testing medications through social media is a far superior way to run such tests than the standard tests used by drug companies. The PatientsLikeMe study acheived its finding nine months after launching, whereas “conventional trials typically take more time just to enroll patients. Costs for drugs and recruiting patients were [also] avoided.”
But what’s most exciting about the wisdom of crowds applied to medicine is that solutions and prognoses for conditions may be tested that otherwise would have never come to light. “Social network-run studies may be most useful for testing efficacy of so-called off-label or off-patent compounds that patients are using but are unlikely to ever attract pharmaceutical company interest,” writes the Journal.
In the future your social media habits may be more immediately vital to your physical well-being than we can currently imagine, and the aphorism “I get by with a little help from my friends” may take on a whole new meaning.