Doctors Compare Notes on Medical Versions of Instagram and Pinterest

If you’re ever gotten an X-ray, you’re probably well aware of how painfully slow it can be for clinicians to share a medical image for interpretation. You see a doctor. Then the X-ray technician snaps the X-ray and gives it to the doctor who explains his or her take on it before mailing it out to another clinician to confirm the doctor’s reading. (And every time it’s handed off, somehow another couple hundred gets added to the bill.) Or worse, you receive a CD of MRI images to give to the next doctor yourself. There’s got to be a better way for clinicians to share medical images with other providers.

Ideally, providers could gather medical colleagues in person to discuss an X-ray or MRI and make sure everyone concurred about the diagnosis. In reality, providers juggling patient-heavy schedules can’t always meet together to review medical images. Even if they have overlapping time slots, medical colleagues might be part of a larger healthcare network that stretches across facilities or cities.

An interoperable EHR system across healthcare organizations could be a solution, but most providers don’t have access to one yet. If they did, clinicians would really only be able to access medical images from their desktop.

Social media is providing an answer.

There are already a slew of provider-only social media networks, which have existed for years. (Sermo’s one of the most popular.) The recent trend, however, hasn’t been medical Facebooks or LinkedIns. It’s medical image-sharing networks à la Instagram or Pinterest.

One of the first of these medical “instagrams”, Figure 1, launched in May 2013. Using the app, doctors who have a question about a complex condition can get a patient’s consent to snap a photo, and release the image into the medical world, stripped of any personal health information, for answers.

Through writing comments on each other’s photos, doctors can connect and learn. And it’s definitely a learning experience. There’s a “Discover” section on the app’s website which has a sample of the photos you’d see as an app user. It’s not for the faint of heart. (Though I will link here for those whose curiosity gets the better of them.)

A newer platform called eRounds has taken that idea even further. eRounds, which calls itself a social clinical network, also lets doctors share medical images and get insights on clinical questions. Its features are more sophisticated than Figure 1’s photo sharing; the developer describes it as the child of LinkedIn and Instagram who then went off to medical school.

The platform actually has roots in a social network called SurgiCenter, which let surgeons store important information about a surgery in a single place. They could share that info easily with colleagues or patients who had questions. Feedback soon showed, however, that surgeons used SurgiCenter most for sharing medical images. So a few years later, eRounds was born.

eRounds is a virtual water cooler where clinicians can reach out to leading experts in their field and gain clinical insights from all over the world. It has a strong networking functionality, but the primary benefit for clinicians is being able to compare notes on medical images, like X-rays. Whether collaborating with colleagues—or posting questions about a challenging case to doctors with more experience—clinicians can easily share photos and knowledge.

None of a patient’s private health information gets shared. Clinicians block or blur any personal health information from an image before creating a case and uploading an image. Cases can be private—maybe a rare condition a doctor wants to study up on—or shared with other doctors they know in their network.

The social clinical approach makes it possible to share knowledge beyond the walls of a physical healthcare setting. It lets clinicians cast out a bigger net when they’re trying to find answers about a complicated case or rare disease. And it speeds up the amount of time it takes for you to get a response on whether your foot’s broken or if you just have a bruised bone.

There’s another exciting photo-sharing platform underway, too. The RSNA Image Share System lets patients share MRI images with their doctors more easily on an online image-sharing site, which NPR compares it to Pinterest.

Since patients gain access to the images, they can ask the next specialist more informed questions. With images in an online storage place, specialists don’t have to do repeat scans if a patient forgets to bring the CD from an ER visit or past appointment.

Despite the different approaches to medical image sharing, the message behind each of these new medical platforms is the same. The 21st century has arrived. Patients ought to benefit from its technology.