Saturday, September 5, 2015

Who Controls the Future of Medical Knowledge? Part I

The recent discontent amongst physicians regarding the process of maintaining board certification in various specialties got me thinking about a broader question: how do doctors acquire new medical knowledge, especially after medical school? Which brings me to an even more critical question: who controls said knowledge?

I would argue that next to our ability to listen to and empathize with patients, the other most valuable aspect of the medical profession is our knowledge. Ever since the days of Hippocrates, medical knowledge has been transmitted from one doctor to another in essentially the same way. In medical school and residency, we attend lectures, read textbooks, study cases, answer Socratic questions posed by more experienced clinicians, and most importantly, learn by seeing numerous patients and accumulating experience. After graduating medical school, it seems that most doctors learn by conferring with one another, reading journals, and attending conferences.

But the more information there is, the more time it takes to access and acquire new knowledge, and the harder it becomes for individual physicians to keep up.

You can be sure that corporations are well aware of this. On the patient side, of course, Dr. Google already provides incredible ease of access to knowledge and profits handsomely from selling ads to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies know more about my prescribing practices than I do, which fuels their targeted marketing efforts. More ambitiously, IBM's Watson Health Cloud promises to "bring together clinical, research and social data from a diverse range of health sources, creating a secure, cloud-based data sharing hub, powered by the most advanced cognitive and analytic technologies." And as much as I panned athenahealth's advertising in an earlier post, the electronic medical record companies will certainly find clever ways of profiting from the vast troves of health care data that they accumulate. And doctors are paying for the privilege of providing that information to them!

At least SERMO ("the most trusted and preferred social network for doctors") pays doctors for completing surveys, but you can be sure that they're in the same game. They keep their service free by monetizing the attention and knowledge of doctors: "Organizations seeking physician expertise, such as pharmaceutical companies, medical device firms, and biotechs, underwrite the market research and sponsorship opportunities within our site."

So what options are available for doctors who want to share their knowledge with each other free from the confines of a data mining operation? Of course, we can still consult with colleagues the old fashioned way, either in person or by phone. But after having these conversations, the knowledge still resides in the brains of people, not easily accessible to future doctors who may run into similar situations. Our professional associations post practice guidelines that hardly anyone reads, and at annual meetings, there are opportunities to meet with expert clinicians to discuss cases, which seems terribly inefficient. What about higher-tech options? There are numerous subscription services that provide summaries of research studies, but I believe that the patients doctors see do not necessarily resemble those who sign up for clinical trials. There are electronic mailing lists in which doctors can discuss cases, and which allow members to search through previous conversations. And there's wikidoc, a free wikipedia for doctors. However, these options are used by very few doctors and are paltry efforts next to the commercial ambitions of Big Data.

With all these business interests aiming to aggregate and profit from the knowledge of doctors, is there anything that the medical profession can do to avoid having our knowledge become some company's proprietary intellectual property?

I don't claim to have the answers, but I will explore some ideas in Part II. Stay tuned…