Crowdsourcing Healthcare

The online physician social networking platform, SERMO, may have the potential to solve some of healthcare’s trickiest problems. But, can it break into the current models of care?

Crowdsourcing and healthcare have not historically been very closely associated (and probably for good reason). But various crowdsourcing platforms have begun to surface, and soon they will transform the way healthcare is delivered. SERMO, an online physician social networking platform, has the potential to be truly revolutionary, perhaps transforming the way medicine is practiced. The current practice of medicine is very much so an antiquated and non-collaborative one – patients see their doctor, that doctor may collaborate with a specialist physician at the home institution, and then the communication stays limited to this spotty interaction.   Separate teams covering the same patient hardly drop more than a daily note as part of their “collaboration”.   But we all know that thousands of minds are better than one, and that multi-disciplinary collaboration can drive up quality and speed of any problem-solving process. SERMO aims to tap into the collective intelligence of physicians across the world and across institutions to find answers to challenging medical problems.


Value Creation


This international medical social network creates value for multiple parties in multiple ways. When a physician encounters a difficult medical problem, he/she can post the issue. The platform provides a safe space whereby SERMO-verified physicians can teach, learn, and share in authentic discussions in real-time. These discussions have yielded life-saving conclusions that are tremendously beneficial to rural physicians and in the cases involving extremely rare conditions. In one example, 46 physicians worked together to save a little girl’s life from a rare infection through collaborating on this platform; over 4,000 doctors worldwide viewed this exchange. Physicians can draw on others’ real life experiences, best practices, and knowledge bases – tapping into a collective intelligence that extends far beyond what a single physician may be capable of on his/her own.


Value Capture and Business Model


Founded in 2005, SERMO now has 470,000 verified physicians across 9 countries. SERMO draws revenue from institutional investors, such as pharma, tech, government and research entities, who want to listen in on the conversations. They stand to gain valuable insights into the daily practice of medicine and nature of medical collaboration. Doctors are drawn to the platform for the intellectual and practical knowledge they stand to gain from participating in exchanges; additionally, physicians are awarded bonuses ranging from $5-25 if they post a question or answer that paying observers deem valuable. Only about 1% of posts receive payment, and physicians don’t know they will be awarded until the conversation is closed. Outsiders can judge credibility based off of the number of corroborations a post receives and the ultimate outcomes of the topic discussed.


Growth Potential


With about 900,000 active physicians in the US, and 10-15 million physicians in the world, SERMO has only tapped into 3% of the global MD population at about 500,000. Assuming indirect network effects are high, any incremental gain in verified MD membership stands to draw more global institutional investors, which can contribute to the strength of the direct network of physicians.


As physician contributions grow, SERMO has an excellent opportunity to leverage sophisticated data analytics of user-generated information. It already offers surveys and polls, in addition to its qualitative data stream, but analytics provides an opportunity that can entice entities interested in evidence-based medicine. I


SERMO’s best target market are those physicians in rural areas who stand to benefit from collaboration, as well as international institutions who are looking to strengthen their medical tourism appeal. Any institution that can boast increased value for less is a winner, and SERMO has the potential to provide one such solution.


Risks/ Challenges


Potential benefits aside, SERMO is not immune to the risks inherent to any crowdsourcing model. Verified or not, physicians can still post erroneous information that lack evidence-based support. These posts stand to misguide others, thus detracting from the credibility of the platform. And in medicine, credibility is key. As the user base grows and the number of interested 3rd parties expands, it will only become harder to guarantee content and regulate any nefarious behavior.


Additionally, investors who have access to the platform as passive bystanders can choose to use data and information from these exchanges without regulation. Third parties always open up potential risk for biasing contributors with financial incentives, and this process must be closely regulated and policed.   Additionally, it is difficult to entice large academic medical centers within the US to adopt such platforms, for that could be interpreted as admitting to sub-par internal collaboration.




Crowdsourcing offers a plethora potential benefits to the practice of medicine that have the potential to improve value of care for less cost. Verification of MD contributors may need to become merit based in order to curate content and ensure credibility. In a field where every second counts, the shared intelligence offered by SERMO has enormous potential in saving more lives across the world.


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Student comments on Crowdsourcing Healthcare

  1. Very interesting post. I wonder whether there is any adverse selection for physicians who have less busy practices and who therefore have more time to respond to questions. Although some physicians who are less busy may choose this purposefully, others may be more inexperienced, causing them to be more free. I’m also curious about the breakdown of the physicians on the platform geographically. The $5-25 bonus seems low for the developing world. I can imagine SERMO raising this for the developing world as they become more profitable and can afford to pay their physicians more in an effort to incentive participation.

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