But few medical professionals are involved in patient sites; mostly patients just talk amongst themselves. That's a problem since crowdsourcing works best when expertise is widely distributed. After all, it won't help you much to have 1,000 people reading your mammogram or selecting your chemotherapy if they're all well-meaning amateurs. What you're really looking for is the consensus of 1,000 highly trained specialists. A patient working alone might be able to use the Internet to get a handful of credible second opinions, and nothing more.
It may be hard to get hordes of doctors to give you their personal attention, but you can often do the next best thing: Find out how hordes of doctors would help someone with a problem just like yours. In fact, the federal government and various groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics convene huge panels of experts to address medical issues all the time. These expert panels put out an electronic call for the world's medical literature on a problem—often including dozens if not hundreds of studies—and then attempt to consolidate the medical wisdom. To date, such entities have crowdsourced 2,527 problems, and produced public reports outlining black-and-white guidelines for diagnosis and treatment.
Want to know what an enormous crowd of doctors thinks about heartburn? It's here. Has your child been diagnosed with asthma? In 2007, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute collected the opinions of the nation's best asthma doctors here. What's the deal with head lice? Get the facts here. Cancer treatments? Check. Diagnosed with a weird genetic condition? The world's experts have combined their talents and created a database for you. Every problem one can imagine—ingrown toenails, hoarseness, sinus infections, weight loss methods, and so on—are addressed.
Having gone through the trouble of crowdsourcing so many questions, doctors have a great resource at their disposal. But they routinely fail to use the help. Some doctors may honestly think the crowd is wrong, but more likely, they're unaware of the fact that guidelines exist or they're wedded to outmoded practices.
What does all this mean for patients? First, check online to see if there are published guidelines for treating your problem. (Many times, your doctor will help you find them.) That will give you at least a general consensus among doctors in the field. Second, if you have a confusing problem, and your doctor is as baffled as you are, ask if there is an expert case conference (an actual crowd of doctors) or a large Internet discussion list (a virtual crowd) that he or she might consult. And if all else fails, maybe you too can send an e-mail blast out to everyone you can find. Someone out there just might have the answer for you.