App is like Instagram for medical professionals
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Sep 29, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

App is like Instagram for medical professionals

Toronto doctor, professor and computer designer create Figure 1, a social media app that allows health care pros to crowdsource consults.


Figure 1 should come with a viewer advisory.

That’s because this social media app, which could be described as Instagram for health care professionals, is definitely not for selfies and cute kitties.

Scroll through the uploads of the day and you’ll find photos of raw,ripped flesh, hideous skin diseases and probes of places where only latex-covered instruments should go.

“Spend a morning in a busy emergency room and you’ll see images like that all morning long,” says Dr. Joshua Landy, 33, a critical specialist at Scarborough General Hospital and the brains behind Figure 1.

His app is both an educational resource and a medical crowdsourcing tool. Post an image of a brain scan that has ominous dark shadows and seek second, third and fourth opinions. Upload an X-ray of a shattered elbow and discuss how to mend it. Put up a picture of an oozing, unsightly rash and challenge medical students to identify it.

Sometimes, even the doctors go: “Yikes!”

It’s all about expanding the expertise, or taking the informal process doctors call the “corridor consult” online.

“It’s like passing somebody in the hospital corridor and saying, ‘Hi let me ask you a question, I have a patient with x, y z.’ ” explains Landy. “You discuss the hard cases, you compare notes, and you ask each other questions about the cases that you have seen.”

Figure 1 has doubled its registered medical professional users to 150,000 since early August when it got a $4 million (U.S.) injection from the New York City-based Union Square Ventures. Its portfolio includes a wide range of social media startups, everything from Twitter to Tumblr.

That investment came on top of the $2-million (Canadian) that launched Figure 1, co-founded by Landy and his partners, Ryerson University’s Gregory Levey, who runs the business end, and Richard Penner, the tech wiz who used to be with Kobo, the e-reader.

It all began in summer of 2012, during Landy’s stint as a visiting scholar at Stanford University where he focused on the smartphone habits of doctors.

“I saw that social media is starting to influence how people behave in hospitals,” he recalls.

Indeed, a Canadian Medical Association (CMA) survey published this year found that nearly 40 per cent of physicians had joined a medical online community, 45 per cent had participated in online discussion forums, and 96 per cent had actually Googled for medical information.

“Images are being shared and passed between health care professionals on the order of tens of thousands a day,” says Landy. “But texts have no memory, no way to index. I wanted to create an accessible, searchable archive of all things visual in medicine. In my mind that would be a remarkable resource. That’s what we’re building toward with Figure 1.”

Landy, whom Levey describes as “kind of a mad scientist,” came back from Stanford with a “bunch of ideas.” Over a casual dinner, the trio started talking. Overnight, their lives changed.

“We dropped everything, Richard and I,” says Levey, 35, who used to teach full time at Ryerson. “And Josh did as much as he could being a doctor.”

But the launch turned out to be more complicated than they had anticipated.

“The legal process was a nightmare: privacy and health care, the worst thing we could do was screw that up,” says Levey. “So we got really good and really expensive health care lawyers.”

Meanwhile Penner and the tech team devised an algorithm that automatically detects faces and blocks them out, preserving patient privacy. All posts and comments are also screened and moderated and anything that could possibly be deemed as sensationalistic doesn’t make the cut.

By May 2013, their product, named for how medical drawings and photos are titled in textbooks and journals, was launched.

Although anybody can download the app and view the posts, only verified health care professionals can actually interact. One Figure 1 employee is tasked with checking identities and credentials and, as the app grows in popularity in the English-speaking world and beyond, that becomes more difficult because of different legal and professional jurisdictions.

As for generating profits, Figure 1, which is free, is still in “pre-revenue” mode. And although a total of $6 million is a great start, Levey, who still teaches one course at Ryerson University, which is also an investor, says it’s not enough.

“It goes faster than I would like, unfortunately,” he says. “We need a bigger team. We were 10, then 12, now we’re going to 15 or 16. We need programmers and designers, one at least for Android, iOS, web, one person to check for bugs which is a full-time job.”

Casual users of Figure 1 should not expect to find a kind of Dr. Google in Figure 1. Unlike popular health-related websites such the Mayo Clinic or WebMD, this is not a place to search for symptoms and self-diagnose. Figure 1 is about improving medicine and the lives of patients, even if that means non-medical pros get to look over their shoulders, albeit virtually.

“I think there’s something to be said for creating a transparent environment where these issues can be discussed,” maintains Landy. “I think that health care professionals have unusual jobs and to be able to see what they see is valuable.”

Toronto Star

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