There aren't a lot of physicians living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and even fewer specialists. So when Richard Armstrong, MD, has a tough question, he jumps online, logs into his SERMO account, and connects with a network of physicians around the world in a manner of minutes.
"It's like having direct specialty consultants with me 24 hours a day," the Newberry, Mich.-based general surgeon says, noting he'd much rather use his laptop or smartphone to consult with a dermatologist in the network than have his patient "drive a couple hundred miles" to see one in person.
Therein lies the appeal of closed networks like SERMO and Doximity. They provide almost-instant access to clinicians, allowing doctors to ask questions, offer their opinions and just sound off on the pressures of being in the medical profession.
"I think it helps me get through the day," says Linda Girgis, MD, a New Jersey-based family practice doctor who's been part of the SERMO network since 2007 and sits on its medical advisory board. "Doctors don't actually have time to go down to the lounge any more. I'm pretty much on SERMO all day. The information I get there is much better than the information I get in real life, and I'm not playing phone tag with anyone."
[See also: Docs find many uses for social networks]
SERMO's growth has been well documented within the U.S., and recently the network expanded to the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Canada, where a doctor saved the life of a young girl suffering from a deadly strain of E coli by asking for help on the network. His plea produced thousands of responses, at least one of which enabled him to contain the girl's sickness (it had already killed her brother) and bring her back to health within two weeks.
Armstrong, who's also a member of SERMO's medical advisory board and has been part of the network since 2007, figures he's had a few cases where the network "helped directly," including a patient who had a rare form of thyroid cancer and was admitted to an experimental treatment program at the University of Michigan.
He says he goes online several times a day, sometimes to have a question answered, but just as often to see what other doctors are talking about.
"Just getting back to the basics of helping somebody figure out how to treat a patient … is why we got into medicine in the first place," he said.
According to SERMO officials, a recent survey of some 1,350 doctors in seven countries listed "solving tough patient cases" as the prime benefit to joining a medical crowdsourcing network, just ahead of education on new techniques and "having a safe space to talk with other physicians."
"Doctors are dealing with huge changes in how they work," said Armstrong. "They're real people, and they need to be able to get together in a safe place and talk."