Powerful digital collaboration tools that doctors actually value

Although patients expect them to, doctors don’t always have the answer. Most of the time, they do, but sometimes they take educated guesses, and every once in a while, a case baffles them. For example, ER doctors have to know a little about a lot of medical issues, so you can stabilize a patient and admit him or her to the hospital to see a specialist. You handle everything from bites and burns to heart attacks.

But imagine that a small boy comes in crying in pain, complaining that his hands are burning. His frantic mother looks to you for help and tells you that she’s tried everything: Tylenol, massages, warm water. During an exam, you find small, purple blemishes on his skin and cloudiness in his corneas. You vaguely remember something about a disorder that involved these symptoms, but you can’t find the information you need.

Instead of spending two hours on PubMed trying to find the answer, you call a pediatric specialist who’s affiliated with the hospital for a consult. The pediatrician asks a few questions and orders specific blood tests. He tells you to admit the child and order a biopsy of one of the blemishes. He explains that it could be Fabry disease, a rare enzyme deficiency that interferes with fat breakdown. He has never seen it before, but if what you’re describing is right, he is pretty sure that is what it is. He asks you to tell the family that he’ll be in to follow up in the morning and thanks you for reaching out. He explains that, if left untreated, Fabry disease is fatal and the boy could have had a heart attack or stroke.

“You may have just saved his life,” he says before hanging up.

Why Doctors Ask for Consults

Typically, only the third year of medical school entails generalized, hands-on learning. By students’ fourth year, they begin to lean toward a specific discipline. So when a patient needs something that is beyond a doctor’s know-how, it makes sense to reach out to a specialist.

In the past, doctors who needed a consult would call a specialist to discuss the situation, reports would be read over the phone, and answers would be provided. This is not always the most efficient way to communicate, especially when it comes to life-or-death situations that require an immediate response.

A New Role for Apps

With all of the modern technology available, it’s no surprise that there is an app specifically for consults. The Figure1 App has been called the “Instagram for doctors” and currently has more than 500,000 users. Doctors from around the world can use Figure1 to snap a picture, remove all identifying information for patient confidentiality, and share it with other users. Details about the patient’s circumstance are given and questions can be posed, potentially giving one doctor the ability to gain input from thousands of others. With at least 4 out of 10 medical students already using the app, its limitations are boundless.

“These kids grew up with Facebook and Twitter,” said the app’s CEO Greg Levey, “and now they’re doctors.”

This is the type of technology that new doctors need to streamline the consulting process, and because it’s based on social media principles, it’s easy for them to use. The company has a global goal to reach specialists in New York and L.A. to doctors in rural Africa.

A Doctor’s Google

FindZebra, another new innovation, is a search engine that was designed for doctors who have patients with a rare disease. Why not just rely on Google?

“Google … considers pages important if they are linked to by other important pages, the basis of its famous PageRank algorithm,” said MIT Technology Review. “However, rare diseases by definition are unlikely to have a high profile on the web. What’s more, searches are likely to be plagued with returns from all sorts of irrelevant sources.”

FindZebra, on the other hand, provides well-sourced information and can help diagnose a patient, potentially saving the lives of those with hard-to-diagnose diseases. According to the European Organization for Rare Disease, 25 percent of rare diseases go undiagnosed for up to 30 years after onset.

The extent to which technological innovations can aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients is ever-expanding. Advancements in technology have already changed today’s health care system and will continue to allow doctors to provide the best care imaginable.