Crowdsourcing medical diagnosis via Facebook

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A study I am surprise hasn’t generated headlines is Laypersons can seek help from their Facebook friends regarding medical diagnosis (Danish: Lægfolk kan bruge deres Facebook-venner til at få hjælp vedrørende medicinske diagnoser). Hype is there alright: crowdsourcing and Facebook. Let your Facebook friends diagnose your disease.

The author of the study – 4 Danish medical doctors – found 8 willing subjects that would use their Facebook wall to post one of 6 short medical cases (see below) selected from an English text book and translated (I suppose) into Danish. The friends of the subjects could then propose a diagnosis by commenting on the post. In 6 of the 8 Facebook users (5 of the 6 stories) a correct diagnosis was suggested. The number of answers to each posted case was from 1 to 14, – the authors had thought that more Facebook friends would participate. Only one of the correct diagnoses was suggested by a medical trained person.

The authors report the median response time to correct diagnosis as 9.5 minutes. However, this is among the people that got a correct answer! If you add the people that did not get a correct diagnosis at all you get the median time to correct diagnosis to be 21 minutes calculated as median([75, 9, 8, inf, 3, 11, 31, inf]). But even 21 minutes might be quite quick compared to ordinary Danish health service. For one case that – I believe – could require surgery within hours the time to the correct answer was 3 minutes.

The authors note the number of “acceptable answers”. In information retrieval contexts of precision/recall the number of acceptable answer addresses the precision: It doesn’t help that the correct diagnosis is posted if it is overwhelmed by a large number of wrong diagnoses (false positives). The authors accepted differential diagnoses as acceptable and found rates between 14% and 100% of acceptable answers, i.e., in one case only 2 out of 14 suggestions (14%) were acceptable. One critique of this measure is that the authors regard obviously humourous diagnoses as “wrong” answers (AFAI read), e.g., one suggestion for a cause of the disease of a girl was that she was depressed due to a specific football club did not sign a proper goal keeper for the season.

The study is small but nevertheless interesting. It doesn’t show that a collective of non-experts are better than an expert as, e.g., Extracting collective probabilistic forecasts from web games. However, I think that the diagnoses were surpricingly quick.

For the broader picture the study gives an idea how sociotechnical systems may help in a welfare state.

Here are all the six medical cases translated from Danish:

  1. A 62 year old man is coughing and has had fever since he came home from India two months ago. Now there has begun to be a bit of blood with the coughing. What is he suffering from?
  2. What disease comes to mind when you read: A 38 year old guy has swollen fingers, swollen hand joints and ankles. The joints are sore and swollen and stiff for over an hour every morning?
  3. If you have pain down the right side of the stomach below the belly button (naval), what’s wrong?
  4. A 35-year-old woman has a burning sensation in diaphragm after eating, even if she only eats very little. She can no longer eat spicy food, drink coffee or chew chewing gum, what’s wrong?
  5. What do you think is wrong? A girl of 26 years lost to follow 6 kg (Correction: she lost 6 kg in weight) , feels restless and has occasional palpitations. She also has a slight swelling on the neck.
  6. An elderly gentleman has a terrible pain in the big toe base joint: It is completely white and he can not even have a blanket resting over his foot, what do you think he suffers from?

You are not allowed to look at the solution from the medical journal. Google searching is allowed. You can put your suggestion in the comment field. Bonus task is to suggest treatments.

3 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing medical diagnosis via Facebook

    Anonymous said:
    January 13, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Hi Finn,Fun. I think the concept of crowdsourcing in this context may be implemented better, however. You ask us to put diagnosis suggestions in the comment box. Here are my layman suggestions based on guesses only (no searching). They are given for others to discard and iterate on. 1: Tuberculosis.2: Rheumatism.3: Liver or spleen problem maybe.4: Pregnancy, eating disorder.5: blood clot, possibly from diabetes.Bonus:6: Stomach problems caused by salmonella after eating raw greens yesterday (Me, now. A general warning of contamination was issued today).I guess your crowd of readers may be somewhat biased. And that it does not show in my answers :-)Cheers,Lars

    Anonymous said:
    January 13, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Oops, please add an ulcer to the list.

    Anonymous said:
    January 13, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Well done. I will not reveal the answer yet, just say the more than one and less than three were spot on. I do not know which differential diagnoses were ok.

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