Study: Free online consultation tool sees frequent, worldwide use by physicians

By | October 10, 2018

Many physicians of various ages and geographic locations are turning to online medical consultation tools as an additional resource when providing care, according to a recent investigation published in npj Digital Medicine.

Conducted jointly by the Scripps Research Institute and WebMD, the study found that 310,563 unique physicians had used WebMD’s Medscape Consult — an online, free-to-use platform for physicians seeking second opinions — between November 2015 and October 2017.

Among these, 37,706 were “active users” who generated a total of 117,346 unique posts (7,834 original queries, 109,512 responses) during this time. The majority of these posts received at least one reply, with a median time to first response of roughly 90 minutes.

While users most often hailed from the US and Europe, the full user pool represented 171 separate countries on every continent. The mean age of all Medscape Consult users was 54.5 years, while those who created original queries skewed younger at 44.7 years. The most common primary specialties among active users were internal medicine, pediatrics, cardiology, obstetrics and gynecology, and dermatology.

Why it matters

Expert consultations can reduce medical diagnostic errors, but a number of factors including access and affordability can limit cross-specialty collaboration, the researchers wrote. Further, they noted that little data has been published on electronic consultations within closed systems, little was available involving open, crowdsourced, peer-to-peer networks — of which Medscape Consult is the largest.

The results, they wrote, suggest “extraordinary” global reach and use across age and specialty.

“Artificial intelligence has been advocated as the definitive pathway for reducing misdiagnosis. But our findings suggest the potential for collective human intelligence, which is algorithm-free and performed rapidly on a voluntary basis, to emerge as a competitive or complementary strategy,” the researchers wrote. “While there are certainly more refinements and study of this platform required, we have demonstrated an extraordinary reach and potential for a multispecialty, crowdsourced, global virtual consultation platform at scale for physicians in search of diagnostic input.”

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What’s the trend

WebMD’s Medscape Consult launched in late 2015 as a physician-focused complement to its better known consumer health education services. But WebMD’s open platform isn’t the only approach — others, such as RubiconMD, offer a more focused ecosystem for providers to request specialist consultations through an app, and guarantee a response to queries within 24 hours.