Does the answer to globalised healthcare lie on the internet?
SILICON Valley entrepreneur James Currier is as immersed in the online space as you can get. He was one of the first people to harness the power of user-generated content when he co-founded Tickle.com (which was later acquired by Monster.com) in 1998, and is on the board of directors for Linden Lab's virtual world, Second Life.
Currier came up with the idea of Medpedia.com one night as he sat nursing his child who has asthma. Seeking medical advice online, the only central resource he could find was WebMD.com, and to his dismay it was more commercial than informative, littered with ads for whitening toothpastes.
"I thought 'you have got to be kidding me. This is it? This is the largest medical website in the US?' It's a joke compared to the other tools that we use."
He began thinking about the web tools we all now take for granted, such as social networking sites, community hubs, Skype and Wikipedia, and felt that if all these technologies were brought together it could create a trusted and evolving source for medical advice.
"We signed up over 200 million people for Tickle.com and when I saw how people created and shared these online tests and how they collaborated to create something much greater than I could ever have imagined I released the nature of what this system could be and began thinking about how it could be applied to education and medicine."
And so Medpedia was born. It is a communications platform for healthcare but has several layers to it.
"We're building a platform that others can plug into for telehealth, collaborative information sharing, Q&As and a directory of both physicians and patients to connect with them," explains Currier.
"Medpedia is aiming to create a free platform that everyone can plug into and will hopefully be adopted as a standard hub in much the same Wikipedia was adopted as a general knowledge resource."
Fundamentally, Medpedia is very different than Wikipedia both in terms of the services it offers and who can contribute to its database. Not only does it have more tools in terms of interactivity and the ability for patients to make medical queries and get answers, but critically the information is provided, edited and vetted by the medical community.
Its content is in alliance with Harvard Medical School, Stanford University School of Medicine, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, University of Michigan Medical School and the UK's National Health Service.
Currier believes the role of the patient is vital: "A patient cannot directly edit an article but can suggest changes, which may be approved by physicians and within the Q&A they can participate on an equal basis.
"Patients have an enormous amount of knowledge about their own conditions, what works and what doesn't and currently this isn't being appropriately captured."
The average internet user already takes to the web seeking health information, but looking up symptoms in a search engine can lead to wildly inaccurate self-diagnosis that has been dubbed 'cyberchondria'. Searching within a wiki environment where medical professionals provide the information is safer.
A recent development within Medpedia is the addition of video, both the video chat element that will be launched soon and the video archive. For example, if you search for autism within Medpedia.com you will find a talk by Princeton University neuroscientist Sam Wang on prevention and therapy for this condition.
"The philosophy I come to this project with is that I built a company up and sold it. I now have some money and a lot of knowledge about this wonderful tool called the internet. I feel as though I have a responsibility to take what I know about the internet to help move us all forward.
"Through the internet, we need to learn how to heal, educate and govern ourselves. The structures we have in place today were built well before the internet came along: a ubiquitous connection with zero marginal cost."
He says that we're only just realising how powerful this is.
"Over the next 40 or 50 years we're going to use this tool to work as a global community; a giant distributed emergent network that is going to help us heal ourselves in ways that are more efficient and less expensive than it ever was before."
How Medpedia is going to get from here to there is not all figured out yet and that is the beauty of it, says Currier.
"That's why we're building it as a platform and letting people experiment with it."
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