Crowdsourcing isn’t just a quick way to get things done on the Internet. When used right, it can accelerate medical research and improve global cardiovascular health, according to a new best-practices “playbook” released by the American Heart Association and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

“The benefits of crowdsourcing are substantial,” said Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., chief science officer of the AHA, who took part in writing the guide. “You can get information from new perspectives and highly innovative ideas that might well not have occurred to you.”

Crowdsourcing Medical Research Priorities: A Guide For Funding Agencies is the work of PRANCCER (Precision Medicine Advances using Nationally Crowdsourced Comparative Effectiveness Research), a joint initiative launched in 2015 by the AHA and PCORI.

“Acknowledging the power of open, multidisciplinary research to drive medical progress, AHA and PCORI turned to the rapidly evolving methodology of crowdsourcing to find out what patients, clinicians, and researchers consider the most urgent priorities in cardiovascular medicine and to shape the direction and design of research targeting those priorities,” according to the guide.

“Engaging patients and other healthcare decision makers in identifying research needs and guiding studies is a hallmark of our patient-centered approach to research, and crowdsourcing offers great potential to catalyze such engagement,” said PCORI Executive Director Joe Selby, M.D. “We hope the input we’ve received will help us develop new research funding opportunities that will lead to improved care for people with cardiovascular conditions.

The playbook offers more than a dozen recommendations on the ins and outs of medical crowdsourcing. It stresses the need to have crystal-clear objectives and questions, whether you’re dealing with patients, researchers or clinicians.

While the playbook spotlights lessons learned by PRANCCER, the guide can also help other medical organizations tap into the collective wisdom of patients and professionals, said Raina Merchant, M.D., who wasn’t involved in creating the report.

“It provides structure and process,” said Merchant, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Media and Health Innovation Lab and lead author of a 2013 paper on the benefits of medical crowdsourcing. “As this is still an emerging area, understanding the challenges and the approaches others have used for crowdsourcing architecture is particularly helpful. There’s also an opportunity to make this a ‘living document’ that can be regularly updated as new platforms are created.”

The AHA-PCORI crowdsourcing initiative, made possible through PCORI funding, asked people to name their highest priorities when it came to researching cardiovascular medicine. The first step of the initiative involved getting the insights of patients and family members, and the next took those insights to clinical researchers as well as other doctors, nurses and healthcare providers.


Getting that “lay perspective” first was imperative, said Robertson.

“The original founders of the American Heart Association had the genius to make it an inclusive organization — not just a group of professionals, but including patients and the lay public. We need to make sure we’re doing research that matters most to people,” she said.

Robertson said one thing PRANCCER’s crowdsourcing reaffirmed was “a gap in the system of guiding patients.”

Patients sometimes struggled to decide on specific treatments not due to a lack of scientific information, but because there didn’t seem to be a way for them to get proper access to the information, she said. But sometimes the issue was that not all the necessary research had been done.

“People want research that tells them and their healthcare provider which of two or three or four different drugs would work best, which is the kind of research that industry won’t usually focus on, for understandable business reasons. But we know comparing things is important, and PCORI has been a real champion of that,” Robertson said.

The key, Robertson said, is to let people open up in a way they normally wouldn’t.

“The crowd often feels pretty frustrated with the pre-ordained questions we ask them in surveys. In crowdsourcing, you ask them to pause and think about the whole process and let them tell you the real story of their problem and what’s most important to them,” she said. “There’s a lot of wisdom in the crowd … the crowd sees things others may not.”