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Crowdsourcing has changed from a buzzword to a business model. In simple terms, it means taking a job traditionally done by one person and outsourcing it to a large, undefined group. Think Threadless, where consumers vote on T-shirt designs to be produced. Mob4Hire has a global crowd 45,000 strong that beta tests mobile products. It’s easy to see how crowdsourcing helps solve problems and drive profits in digital and high-tech companies.
But I would argue crowdsourcing’s next frontier should be a less obvious one – the complex, rapidly changing American healthcare system.
According to a 2011 Gartner study, healthcare lags behind other industries in using crowdsourcing. But in this industry the power is moving to the people – consumers are stepping out of employers’ shadows and becoming more mobile, direct customers of healthcare services.
Many stakeholders, insurance companies in particular, are mired in outdated structures and struggling to adapt to this shifting landscape. Crowdsourcing (and the technology that fuels it) could help drive the complete transformation these companies need – and offer lessons for other traditional, complex industries that aren’t yet closely tied to the digital revolution.
Crowdsourcing represents a radical departure from the status quo, but that’s exactly why the healthcare industry should consider it for its toughest problems. For example, insurers are scrambling to learn how to run virtual operations with an entrepreneurial mind-set.
Consider that Facebook manages 845m users with 3,200 staff, while large health plans serve about 60m customers with 30,000 to 90,000 staff – that’s one Facebook staffer for every 264,000 users, while each health plan staffer serves on average only 1,500 customers. Insurance companies will increasingly compete against companies that are already skilled at using digital platforms to form new alliances and that can reconfigure their value chains in response to market needs.
Where could crowdsourcing have the greatest impact in healthcare?
Big Data: gamification (using games to make messages more engaging and informative) could aid in solving complex medical problems. For example, citizen scientists helped unlock the structure of a protein molecule via a video game developed at the University of Washington, and the JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) and InnoCentive announced a $100,000 challenge “to the crowd” in order to fuel the discovery of a glucose-responsive insulin drug.
The most compelling insights about therapeutic treatment effectiveness have yet to be mined, because private insurer data has been proprietary and trapped in data silos. This may soon change: the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute has pooled 5bn claims from 34m commercial members to discover the drivers of rising healthcare costs.
Crowdsourcing this analysis may be the fastest means of linking medical practices to outcomes. This data could be used to proactively identify patients who are likely to be admitted to a hospital within the next year – a preventive analysis that could save $30bn in unnecessary hospital admissions.
New Care Models: Facebook is already being employed by some users to reach the crowd for help in “diagnosing” rare medical conditions, while Webicina.com aggregates social media-driven healthcare resources.
Payors could also collaborate with self-monitoring consumers who collect data such as heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and glucose levels over smartphones and other devices. This ‘field’ data could be continuously and wirelessly uploaded to a care team’s dashboard. The team and the empowered consumer could co-develop new models of care for both chronically ill and healthier populations. Open source infrastructure, protocols, and applications are available for sharing data between devices and with providers to improve the health of individuals and communities.
Organisational Alignment: internal crowdsourcing may aid in postmerger integration by engaging acquired business units in developing their own alignment plans. Look at some of the recent acquisitions by large health plans which now require major product and portfolio integrations.
Instead of a top-down integration effort, management could issue a framework for a desired portfolio (specifying key attributes) to business units and acquired entities. In response, the internal crowd could be empowered to submit product plans and re-engineering ideas for consideration, and the final solution could be made available to all via cloud computing.
Healthcare organisations will hiowever need to take three critical steps in order to use crowdsourcing to catalyse change.
1. Integrate with digital technologies: crowdsourcing will gain the most traction in companies that already have a strong digital foundation. Health providers and payors are experimenting with social media, telemedicine, virtual offices, and online or mobile intervention. Crowdsourcing becomes a seamless application over a platform that already emphasises engagement across the organisation.
2. Establish an information-sharing infrastructure: an infrastructure that allows for effortless internal communication, knowledge sharing, and empowerment is essential for collaborating with consumers and partners. Real change will be stymied by closed architecture, data silos, and the lack of a way to get “real” feedback from consumers and employees.
3. Change culture and roles: as crowdsourcing shifts the business model toward co-creation, social networking is everyone’s responsibility; it becomes a way to influence product development, improve operations, and chart strategy.
Crowdsourcing can help transform healthcare only if organisations are willing to trade control for innovation and let go of the old way of doing things. And as health consumers gain more power and demand more control, those who go boldly into the crowd will be positioned to win in terms of loyalty, growth, and revenue.
Carl Dumont is a partner at Booz & Company, where he specialised in IT for healthcare and life sciences