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Harnessing the power of healthcare crowdsourcing

Posted Jun 13 2013 8:58am

by Kent Bottles

All hospital system leaders are looking for new tools to help them cope with the rapid transformation of the American healthcare delivery system brought on by the Affordable Care Act and the transition of the payment system from fee for service to global, value-based programs.

One tool that is increasingly mentioned as being underutilized by hospital systems is crowdsourcing. What is it? What is it not? What should healthcare leaders know about this disruptive technology?

I first came across the term by reading Jeff Howe's 2006 Wired magazine article titled "The Rise of Crowdsourcing." In this still useful article, Howe described a creative process that addressed top-down organization goals by using an open, Internet-facilitated bottom-up approach.

In addition to coining the portmanteau "crowdsourcing," Howe also illustrated his new concept by examining four examples:

  • Threadless
  • InnoCentive
  • Amazon's Mechanical Turk
  • iStockphoto

According to Daren C. Brabham, the author of "Crowdsourcing," the characteristic components of crowdsourcing are an organization with a defined task, a community that will perform the task voluntarily, an online environment where the community and organization can communicate, and mutual benefit for the organization and the community.

Brabham further defines crowdsourcing by what it is not. He does not think the following qualify as crowdsourcing:

  • Open source production
  • Common-based peer production like Wikipedia
  • Market research and brand engagement

In the book, Brabham describes four types of crowdsourcing: knowledge discovery and management, broadcast search, peer-vetted creative production, and distributed human intelligence tasking.

In knowledge discovery and management, the organization tasks a community with finding and collecting information. An example is Peer-to-Patent , a 2,600-member online community organized by New York Law School that reviews patent applications for evidence of prior art.

In broadcast search, the organization tasks a community with solving empirical problems. The best example is InnoCentive , a company that broadcasts difficult scientific problems corporations want solved by offering prize money to anyone in the online community who comes up with a workable solution.

Peer-vetted creative production involves the organization asking the community to create and select creative ideas. For a great example, look at Threadless . This company sold more than $30 million of silk-screened T-shirts in 2009; the designs are created by the community members who vote on the best designs, which are then manufactured and sold.

Using distributed human intelligence tasking, the organization tasks a crowd with analyzing large amounts of information; the Amazon Mechanical Turk is a good example of this type of crowdsourcing. This Amazon service farms out tasks such as language translation, survey responses, and information gathering to an online community of workers.

Brabham predicts crowdsourcing will play a prominent role in the future of healthcare, writing:

"Crowdsourcing will be deployed to accelerate and improve public health interventions, such as reporting violations in point-of-sale tobacco control. Crowdsourcing will also prove useful in gathering health histories, using human computation to transcribe older health records, and developing sophisticated models to improve health behavior."

The healthcare leader who masters this technological tool and who uses it to connect with their local community will be positioned well in the new world of accountable care organizations and value-based payment systems.

Kent Bottles, M.D, is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health.

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