Will the “Instagram for Clinicians” Be a Game-Changing Educational Resource?

Working with clinicians to set up forums where care teams would discuss their patients daily, I was privy to the excited eyes and cheshire cat smiles that accompanied the talk of “woah” patients – the medically rare, gross, or otherwise notable cases which made the day a bit more interesting. The patient with Anton-Babinski Syndrome. The child whose amputated hand was proof he shouldn’t have been playing with an axe. The all-too-common gunshot wounds of every type, notable for their stories more than the wounds.

With the release of Figure 1, a photo-sharing app for health care professionals, those conversations can leave the hospital and enter the cloud; physicians can upload a picture to their feed, and it’ll be instantly available to the world. It’s Instagram for health care workers, except instead of filtered “selfies” and pictures of brunch, it has pictures of rare medical conditions and x-rays of things inserted where they shouldn’t be. It’s a new, neat idea that could change the face of medical education or serve as stress-relieving entertainment. Or both.

Dr. Joshua Landy, co-founder at Movable Sciences, said in an email interview that he created Figure 1 to fill a gap he identified in clinician-to-clinician communication. Currently, “many physicians collect images of interesting or representative cases on their smartphones,” and share with colleagues. Sensing an opportunity, and “recognizing the educational benefit of these images,” Landy created an app that would “harness thousands of educational assets being collected by individuals each day.”

The app opened to the public three weeks ago, and has a user base “well into the thousands,” Landy said. Anyone can download it, but only health care professionals can upload images; once vetted, physicians will have a “Verified Physician” badge on their profiles. Users can search for images of specific conditions and have conversations with others through a commenting feature – which Landy said has already been used as a virtual classroom, with “experienced healthcare professionals answering questions for medical students.”

Understandably, patient privacy is a significant concern with using the app. Clinicians and patients are wary about releasing identifying information, so the app gives users a variety of tools to blur or block features such as tattoos, and software automatically blocks faces. Users are expected to help police images, too, by flagging images with patient identifiers, and Figure 1’s Medical Officer will delete any improper images that aren’t caught.

In addition to its potential as a learning platform, it’s easy to imagine the app becoming a way to broadcast images added more for their “woah factor” than their learning content (for example: this profile, at The Atlantic, included multiple screenshots of the app, including one with a severed hand and the caption “Traumatic hand amputation!”).

Asked if that was a feature or a bug of the platform, Landy said that “we’re not particularly interested in the “cool factor” and that the goal was to be an educational resource: “we anticipate it will become a rich community for healthcare professionals interested in both classic teaching images and more exotic images.”

But the user base may be interested in the cool factor.  As Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, notes, the purpose of the image is important; if it’s uploaded for its “wow” value and not its educational value, a patient may feel uncomfortable about its use by the Figure 1 community.

It’s too early to say what the future will hold for Figure 1; as with any online community, it’ll slowly start to establish its own identity. It’s possible that physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals will post interesting cases and establish a robust “virtual rounding” platform for education, as Dr. Landy hopes. It’s also possible that it’ll look a lot more like Instagram than Wikipedia: entertaining and occasionally shocking, but rarely educational.

Are you a medical professional that has used, or plan to use, Figure 1? What do you think of the app? As a potential patient, would you consent to your images being uploaded for education? How about for images you knew were being uploaded for their “woah” factor?

Mike Miesen is a former hospital operations consultant and current freelance journalist, covering American health policy and international development from east Africa. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMiesen.

2 replies »

  1. That’s definitely one of the crucial questions for Figure1 and its users. The Terms of Service are very clear that clinicians must get consent (as their jurisdiction defines it), and I want to believe that nearly all of them will.

    It will also be interesting to know how clinicians are getting consent. If the image is not really for educational purposes, will the physician inform the patient of that?

  2. The idea of a crowdsourced medical library is indeed very cool–and the app itself provides such a well-streamlined structure for anyone who would find the contents interesting.

    I like that non-healthcare professionals have access, and that there is an effort to moderate comments so that supposedly only medical professionals can comment (really depends on how strong the verification measure is…)

    But how on earth does a physician become comfortable enough with a patient to allow this sort of interaction to happen without coming across as irreverent?

    X-rays, bloodwork, okay, fine. But this morning a very vivid, sad, and admittedly very scary mass due to late-stage breast cancer was featured in recent pictures.
    How did that happen? Did the patient just easily consent for the sake of knowledge/research?