The effectiveness of medical treatments varies from person to person. You and I might both have headaches, but aspirin works better on your cranium than mine. By the same token, some people might find certain herbs and diets useful. Or they might get relief from drugs developed for different purposes. Many people use antidepressants for back pain, for example.
Your doctor might guess what’s best for you based on previous experience, but unless something has been tested in a clinical trial (and many treatments aren’t) there’s no firm way to know. You’re left with the often-unreliable Internet to provide answers.
Charlie Rocamboli, a physician from Los Angeles, has an idea for how we might open up testing, and level out the playing field for alternative therapies and off-label uses: CureCrowd—a medical search engine where the results are sourced from users.
Say you suffer from insomnia, and you find that orange juice helps you sleep. You can go to the insomnia page, type in the treatment, rate its effectiveness, and list side effects. The idea is to build up a picture of a treatment based on the multiple impressions of everyday people.
Rocamboli hopes the site will confirm or deny hearsay about certain therapies. "Doctors talk to one another, and say 'try this, or try that, it works for my patient,'" he says. "The problem is there is nothing to stand on if you want to prescribe something and another doctor argues with you and says 'why are you using that?' It’s very difficult to say 'I heard a rumor.'"
He explains: "What we’ve done is create a web site that crowdsources anecdotal medicine to make it scientific. Because once the numbers get big enough, it’s not a rumor anymore. If you have two people drinking coffee for a headache, that’s one thing. If you have 20,000, you have something scientific. It’s a justification to use something."
There are some controls. Before treatments are registered, a team of medical professionals behind the scenes assesses their validity. It might be a stretch to say that smoking marijuana cures toe fungus (even if that’s what you thought last time you were high). And users can’t enter results for a treatment more than once, unless they set up more than one account. That means someone promoting a certain remedy will have a hard time gaming the system.
Rocamboli hopes CureCrowd will democratize medicine a little, and shift the emphasis away from pharmacological solutions to every problem. The idea is to level the playing field between, say, taking Prozac and doing yoga in the morning. "A lot of things aren’t conventionally thought of as medicine, like herbs or physical therapy, because there’s no money in it. We’re pushing them all into a single survey-based study that can basically go on forever, and include innumerable treatments," he says.