We’ve heard a lot about crowdsourcing, or outsourcing work that one person would normally do to a large and often distributed crowd.  There is a related and I think even more important idea of a network of microexperts and how they amplify the collective intelligence of their members.

Gilles Frydman — a pioneer of online patient communities and now my co-founder at Smart Patients — has developed this idea with me.  He has witnessed for over 15 years the power of cancer patient communities, each an organically grown network of microexperts.  Much of our recent thinking is inspired by Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen.  He talks about the 1999 chess match of world chess champion Garry Kasparov versus “The World”, where anyone was allowed to be on the virtual World team and each move was decided by popular vote.  Remarkably, The World almost beat Kasparov.  No one on their team could consistently compete with Kasparov, though several happened to have a deep understanding of one of the configurations of the chess board during the match.  And critically, one woman was also good enough to recognize who had the best suggested move because she carefully considered and understood their analyses.  She couldn’t create every insightful move, but she could recognize them, and since she also earned the trust of the community, she converted individual insights into actionable collective insight.  She tapped into a network of microexperts.

In thinking about this idea in the context of health, I’m convinced that our next exponential leap in medical progress depends on us learning from networks of microexperts.  Today when I see patients, for example, I’m often not sure what the right diagnosis or treatment is.  I may look something up, ask a nearby colleague, or if I’m really unsure, I’ll refer the patient to someone more expert.  I often don’t do this because both the patient and I want a decision sooner and because the ‘expert’ is also imperfect.

Imagine if I summarized the question in a couple sentences +/- a photo, and it was immediately posed to 100 potential experts in my network, who are chosen on a per-question basis using a relatively simple algorithm that matches my question to their experience.  And I, like the woman on The World team, am a good enough generalist to know which microexpert has the most pertinent recommendation.  Building this system would require significant innovation in how groups of doctors collaborate, but from a technology perspective we could easily build this system today.  It’s clear to me that in ten years, I’ll look back on how I’m practicing medicine today, and be embarrassed at how often I settle for poorly informed decisions.

Patients, no surprise, have already begun to figure this out.  A well-functioning online patient community is a network of microexperts.  For example, a few might have a background in statistics and have learned how to interpret the results of clinical trials.  Others have the resources to travel to centers of excellence for their relatively rare cancer and bring back to the community what they learn.  Many of them read everything they can find, share potentially useful findings, ask each other questions, and discuss potential answers.  And the best communities have a few members who are skilled at recognizing key insights brought by those who happen to be the microexperts for a given question.  It’s time to learn more from networks of microexperts!