“There are many decisions in medicine often made by groups of people, and as we’ve all experienced, with a large group of people—no matter how educated or organized—there is still a heterogeneous and ultimately not efficient way that we tend to fall to collective decisions,” says Dr. Matthew Lungren, assistant professor of pediatric radiology at Stanford University Medical Center. He goes on to explain why this is, which seems to be in large part because of the power dynamics at play in face-to-face conferences or meetings; there are usually leaders or individuals with perceived power and authority over the others in the group, making truly collective decision-making efforts difficult to actualize—whether or not anyone really notices it. But when patients’ lives are on the line, can we really count on this method? It’s the only one that’s been used in medicine, and it seems to have been working for eons now, but does that mean it’s the best method? Could it be improved in the name of efficiency, fairness, and patient well-being?
Dr. Lungren and the team of senior researchers at Unanimous seem to think so, and for the past two years they’ve been collaborating on an effort to bring swarm intelligence into the realm of decision making in radiology and any other specialty of medicine which might benefit from it. So, what exactly is swarm or collective intelligence? When distilled to the basics and explained illustratively, it’s really quite simple: “It’s a real-time interaction, but unlike a large conference call…you don’t actually know the identity of anyone else in the swarm and there’s a very graphical way that people who are swarming interface…Imagine a puck on ice that can be slid around, and each person has a magnetic force that they can apply to that puck to pull it toward the answer they believe is correct,” explains Dr. Lungren. Eventually, a conclusion will be reached, with the contributions having been evenly distributed and anonymous within the swarm.