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Crowd Sourcing Site Lets Group Review Your Medical Condition

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Would you use the wisdom of crowds to diagnose your medical condition?

"I would probably come to a decision on my own with a lot of medical journals and information from my physician, versus the crowd," says one woman at a local mall.

"A hundred minds think better than one mind, so I think it would be beneficial," says someone else.

"The statistics say they'll do well, but I still don't trust 'em," says another.

A website called CrowdMed says it can harness the wisdom of crowds.

"More than half our patients tell us the crowd's brought them closer to a correct diagnosis or a cure," says co-founder Jared Heyman.

The idea behind the wisdom of crowds is that groups come to better decisions collectively, better than any one person in the group.

We asked a crowd of our own to take a thoughtful look at the website, which claims to put your hard to diagnose medical case in front of so-called medical detectives to get you a diagnosis.

These detectives aren't necessarily doctors, but can be medical students, retired physicians, nurses, physician assistants, chiropractors, scientists, naturopaths, and regular people who enjoy solving medical mysteries. They are paid based on diagnosing correctly, confirmed by your own doctor.

For a fee that ranges from about $100 to $500, your case will be presented to these anonymous sleuths. The more you pay, the more attention you'll get.

"The more patients are engaged in their illness, the better the outcome is going to be," says Allegheny County Medical Society president Dr. John Williams.

This local doctor finds the concept intriguing.

"If you're going to have a difficult case, having a group of individuals is much better than having a single individual, Dr. Williams adds. "And if you think about it, from the point of view of what medicine has always practiced, we've done very similar kinds of things, and we call them grand rounds."

But he hadn't gone on to the site itself at the time of the interview.

Another doctor did. I requested that he enter a difficult case with a known diagnosis to see what kind of answers we would get back. He was sufficiently alarmed by the types of information requested that he did not want to appear in this news report.

The site asks a patient for their for medical history, but also how they feel about their symptoms, and how much money they've spent on their condition. And there were graphs reflecting activity that were not quite in line with the number of replies.

The site also asks for more money to present the case to more medical detectives, or for a personal phone call from one of them.

We had already paid top dollar to have our case evaluated, and after a month and a half, only got two responses -- one off-base and one moderately helpful suggestion. We weren't about to pay any more.

"This is really a commercial enterprise. And so I would say, if you're going to use a site like this, and you want to try your hand at the wisdom of the crowd, realize you're a consumer -- that you need to be skeptical, that the buyer needs to beware," says Carnegie Mellon University's Alex John London.

This medical ethicist worries that people who are desperate for answers might be drawn to such a site.

"If you don't know who the experts are, and you don't know what their expertise is, and they don't have some sort of fiduciary obligation to you, how do you know they're not just in it for the money, and not there to help you?" London points out. "There's no guarantee that these people, any of these people, have your best interest at heart."

In the end, after 90 days, we had three suggestions and five diagnoses, and none were correct.

We reached out to CrowdMed CEO Jared Heyman about our case. He said our case received 22 medical detective participants, which is generally appropriate. He also said he felt the quality of the case we presented was lacking in detail and that, "high-quality cases with responsive and engaged patients tend to get much more attention and better results."

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