Scientific and medical research has seen explosive growth in the past few decades. Since 1996, the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) has maintained PubMed, a free portal providing access to references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. PubMed now has over 21 million citations going back to 1966, and continues to add a staggering amount (about 500,000 new records) each year. The chart below was adapted from a recently published journal article about PubMed.

Article by Zhiyong Lu

Today, clinical professionals have tools (like Ovid, ScienceDirect, UpToDate, Trip) that help answer complex questions and are connected to validated knowledge bases derived off of sources like PubMed. But how does a patient, with no access or expertise in the domain find and leverage this information? Medify tries to solve that.

The value proposition of Medify is not easy to describe. In fact, the ‘What is Medify‘ description on the site was banal enough to be dismissed, just like most other online social health startup marketing. They do a better (albeit prolix) job on the ‘How it works‘ page. Medify will appeal to the well-informed patients who are not afraid to sift through piles of academic articles burdened with medical jargon to understand and manage their own disease. Medify gives them a dashboard of existing literature – with it they can monitor things like which treatments are gaining traction in the provider community, which institutions are on the forefront of relevant research, etc. Affiliated web 2.0 functionality like faceted search, social sharing, tracking, annotating are bundled in to make it more personal.

Under the hood, it is smartly leveraging what public knowledge bases are already out there. The citation and abstract are free from PubMed. Interstitial phrases and terms in the content are further linked to sources like Wikipedia and MeSH. Brief outcomes or summaries are synthetically constructed from the article text.

Medify is not alone. There are other sites that try to help patients navigate the vast sea of research literature. PubMed’s parent NLM runs MedLinePlus,  UpToDate has a patient-oriented version, and niche startups like MyDailyApple, PatientsLikeMe are also tackling this to some extent.

In 2001 Brian Haynes, MD, PhD wrote an article describing the landscape of such ‘pre-appraised’ resources through a hierarchical structure that had four layers (called “4S” Model):

  • Original ‘Studies’ (what PubMed provides) at the base
  • ‘Syntheses’ (systematic reviews sources like The Chochrane Library) of evidence just above that
  • ‘Synopses’ (like EBM, EBN Online) of studies and syntheses next up, and
  • the most evolved evidence-based information ‘Decision Support Systems’ at the top.

He later expanded the model to 2 more layers (read about the “6S” paper here), but the basic argument remained same – Information seekers should begin looking at the highest level resource available for the problem that prompted their search. That is a good framework to understand why services like Medify are needed.

The skeptics would argue that offerings like Medify will do little more than empower hypochondriacs. But I believe that well-served health information only makes outcomes better. The lag time between published research being implemented in real-world medical practice can be in the order of decades. As consumers, we are entrusted to make choices about other important topics like money, and the market provides personal finance tools/services to help. Same can apply to healthcare, without diminishing the role of experts.