Healthcare & The Long Tail

The Long Tail of healthcare is raising its head. Jim Walker has posted an excellent article over on The Health Care Blog about physicians and the long tail, social networks, and search.

blockquote.gifMaggie Mahar writes that “Ambiguity haunts medical care”. She goes on to quote Dr. Atul Gawand – “Uncertainty is the core predicament of medicine . . . the thing that makes being a patient so wrenching, being a doctor so difficult and being part of a society that pays the bills so wrenching."

It’s important to note that for a great many cases, ambiguity is not really an issue.  This is because the distribution of medical ailments follows a curve very similar to Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail”, with a great many common “blockbuster” ailments stacked up high on the left-hand side of the curve. For those not familiar with the Long Tail, Anderson describes how Amazon, Netflix, and other online retailers sell lots of the usual blockbusters, but actually derive more total volume from 100s of thousands of niche products.  In healthcare, it is the left side of this distribution curve which inspires (for better or worse) Wal-Mart, Target, and others to offer “Doc In A Box” services -  Allergies, Bladder Infections, Bronchitis, Ear Infections, Pink Eye, Sinus Infections, and a full battery of vaccines – all served up for a fixed price while you wait.

And about physician networking:

blockquote.gifSocial network software may be one way to help physicians overcome this “search result overload”, allowing them to move faster and more confidently outside their circle of trusted sources and down the long tail, especially when faced with a “rare” condition (which as we’ve noted – is not such a rare occurrence in the aggregate). For example, within MyMedwork , search priorities start with the individual physician’s network of trusted colleagues and work outward from there. In other words - each physician gets a totally unique list of search results based on who in their own extended network is likely to possess useful information. Because the medical community is so small, it turns out that physicians are usually quite closely linked to any given article or study, they are just not aware of the connection. By viewing the social network connection within their search results – they are then in a position to more accurately judge the quality of the information – either by checking with the in-between link (i.e. “Hi Dr. Jones, I notice you’re connected to Dr. Watson – what do you think of his study on phylloides tumors?”) – or by contacting the physician directly (i.e. “Hi Dr. Watson, I see you went to medical school with my colleague Dr. Jones, do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your study?).