Trust the crowd for medical advice, too, says pharma giant
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Trust the crowd for medical advice, too, says pharma giant

Drug company Sanofi believes that the next big breakthrough app for diabetics will come not from doctors, but from patients

A Sanofi app for managing diabetes. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Sanofi app for managing diabetes. (photo credit: Courtesy)

We rely on the crowd for traffic reports (à la Waze), but should we be relying on it for advice on medical matters? French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi thinks so.

The Israel office of Sanofi is this week wrapping up a project in which Israelis were called on to come up with ideas for applications that would make it easier to cope with diabetes. The result, said Liat Lavie, a Sanofi spokesperson, more than met the company’s expectations.

Diabetes rates in Israel, as in many places, have risen sharply in recent years, Sanofi said. Treatment is complex and requires the involvement of a professional and careful monitoring to prevent common and dangerous complications of the disease, such as heart attack, brain stroke, kidney failure, blindness, nerve problems and sexual dysfunction.

To that end, Sanofi on July 10 invited diabetics — and anyone else interested — to offer ideas that would be incorporated into apps that diabetics could use to make their lives easier. It was the first time a pharmaceutical company tried to use the “wisdom of crowds” to build a better app — although Sanofi in the US recently tapped app developers  in a similar manner. Participants discussed the ideas in an online forum and gave their favorite ideas a “Like.”

“We got over 50 ideas, and we will definitely be following up on some of them,” claimed Lavie. “Some of the ideas are more practical than others to develop, so we will be concentrating on those first.” Many of the ideas revolved around reminders and management of diabetes, issues that surprised the Sanofi staff. “We knew that most of the ideas would relate to disease management or connecting to medical professionals, but the extent to which people want to use apps to micromanage their situation — such as an app that alerts them when they leave home, reminding them to take their insulin injection — was somewhat surprising.”

Not everyone is enamored of the “wisdom of crowds.” In a recent article, tech expert Dan Woods said that “the notion of crowds creating solutions appeals to our desire to believe that working together we can do anything, but in terms of innovation it is just ridiculous.” If you truly want something innovative — and of good quality — you have to go to experts who will come up with something that really answers the needs of users, not to the crowd, where results will be mediocre at best, explained Woods. It’s an argument that would seem to apply even more to the medical field, where expertise isn’t a luxury.

But that is exactly why Sanofi turned to the crowd, said Lavie. “The biggest experts are the ones who live with the disease. They, their caregivers, friends and family know better than any doctor or drug company what it is like to live with diabetes.”

Professor Moshe Karp, a top Israeli diabetes expert, welcomed the Sanofi project. “Diabetics need to monitor different metrics in their bodies, to maintain balance and prevent deterioration of the disease. To be able to customize the drug therapy to each patient in an effective and accurate way for each stage, patients are asked to record their blood sugar and lipid level, blood pressure, body weight and to lead a healthy lifestyle — nutrition and exercise. This is an everyday task and it is complex, requiring perseverance, patience, knowledge and the ability to record the various measures and, no less important, getting family members to engage.”

Ronnie Birnbaum, general manager of Sanofi Israel, said that “in order to develop an app that answers the needs of users in the best way, we chose a model based on the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and invited diabetics, their families, friends and anyone whose life has been touched by the disease, to offer application ideas, contribute from personal experience and share their needs with us. They will bring the ideas and we will invest the resources,” he explained, adding that “together we will lead to the launching of an app, the first of its kind — created by, and for, diabetics.”

 

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