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Post Instagram-like pictures of your rash, get diagnosed

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Doctors leverage social media to help diagnose patients

It's 2 a.m. and you're awake with a mysterious itchy rash that seems to be spreading. If you're like most of us, you'll page Dr. Google and spend a sleepless night poring over pictures of rashes way worse than yours and end up convinced you have flesh-eating bacteria. Soon you may have another option besides hysteria or cornering your doctor-friend at a party: Text a picture of your ailment to your doctor and then he or she can put it on Figure 1 to get a quick opinion from other doctors all over the globe.

Figure 1 is being described as an "Instagram-like" app that lets doctors and their patients get help with tricky diagnoses quickly by linking together doctors of similar specialties. This is a great idea for doctors and patients alike. In past years if you didn't live near a specialist you simply would never see a specialist. Or if you did it was only after a lengthy referral process and months of waiting for appointments. That's fine if you're a wealthy dowager who has nothing to do but visit doctors but for the rest of us it's inconvenient at best and life-threatening at worst. Now, thanks to the app, you can get a specialist's opinion in the comfort of your own home.

In addition, doctors can learn about other ailments they may not be as familiar with and quickly get answers to questions and with medical technology changing by the day, staying up-to-date has never been more important. Josh Landy, the inventor, got the idea from seeing other doctors during his residency using their smartphones to do quickie consults and realized how much easier (and safer) it would be to have an organized system.

"It can be 4 a.m. when you're working, and you're going to see something that can astonish you," Landy said to Vox. "It might be the most classic textbook example of something you don't know about, and it happens when there are not a lot of other people around. So the idea was there has to be a better way to communicate."

The idea quickly caught on, and Landy estimates that now 20 percent of medical students have it on their phones. The app divides up cases by specialty. Right now there are options for radiology (is that a break or a bruise?), dermatology (who knew there were so many varieties of "pustules"?), and emergency medicine (you don't even want to know). And while anyone interested in gross-out health stuff — looking at you surgery-channel watchers — can see the pictures and discussions on the app, only doctors can comment.

You also have to be a doctor or nurse to upload a picture to Figure 1 at this time and it feels like this is where the future of medicine is heading. At my doctor's office there is a private website system set up where I can, oh yes, text or e-mail pictures to my doctor as well as receive replies and treatment options.

For a hypochondriac like me this is the best news but others worry about legal issues. (Pro tip: No selfies allowed on this photo app. Faces and identifying details can't be shown.) Privacy and liability concerns "haven't really been a problem yet" according to Landy but as the technology catches on it will be interesting to see what steps both doctors and patients take to protect themselves — and what this means for the rest of us. Because if the success of Figure 1 has shown us anything it's that doctors and patients will, and already are, using smartphones for medical care. The only question now is how to do that in the safest and most effective way.

Oh and your rash? It's not flesh-eating bacteria. You can go back to bed now.

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