Figure 1 helps doctors, puts the rest of us off our lunch

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 6, 2014

From The News Desk

When Andrew Kesselman has some down time during the day, he scrolls through what might be the world’s weirdest social network: Figure 1, the Instagram for doctors.

Instagram for doctors is exactly what it sounds like. A stream of photos of various injuries and medical images and cat scans and infections and broken bones and tissue, taken by doctors, on a mobile app feed. It almost sounds like some kind of sick Dexter themed way to pass the time. But for the doctors, it’s actually a useful and more fun way to learn about new pathologies and cases from other medical professionals.

Figure 1 just celebrated its one year anniversary and announced that is has signed up 12 percent of all US medical students.

It works exactly the way Instagram does, with added consent forms. Doctors have their patients sign away the rights to their images, whether limb, head, skin, X-rays, internal organs. Figure 1 comes with its own version of Instagram filters, but in this case its anonymizing filters to blur any identifying patient appearance. The user can add information about the condition and hit post, and it shows up in the streams of anyone following that doctor. Users can comment on each others’ posts, carrying on discussions about the epidemiology background on the disease, possible treatment, and notable symptoms to look for.

As an almost-doctor wrapping up his medical residency, Kesselman heard about Figure 1 from fellow med students. “For me it was initially the shock value of the app that drew me to it,” Kesselman says. “Originally there were a lot of pathology photos I hadn’t seen before that were posted.” 

In fact, there’s plenty of pathology photos still on there today. When I downloaded the app, I was treated immediately to a feed of gross, scary looking afflictions from an open pus-filled sore with mucus coming out of it to a giant tumor-like lesion on a young boy’s lip.

After being sucked in by the pathology photos, Kesselman stayed for the radiology shots — his specialty. “Based on what population you treat you might see different conditions,” Kesselman says. “It’s nice to see things that for me are rare but for other people might not be rare.”

The clinching deal that turned him into a Figure 1 fan came when he saw a patient with a unique congenital facial deformity. He wouldn’t have arrived at the diagnosis nearly as quickly if he hadn’t seen a similar case on Figure 1 the night before.“I would have had to seek out a more senior radiologist or look in text based documents,” Kesselman says. “It would have been a longer process.”

At this point, he says he goes on it ten to thirty minutes a day, scrolling during downtime the way the rest of us might waste brain time on Instagram.

Figure 1 raises the question of what role social media can play in industries you might not think of it mattering. Social media is, at heart, about connectivity between people. It can help professionals engage more with current developments, share knowledge more quickly, stay up to date, and feel emotionally invested in the work.

Although doctors could get the information they need from textbooks, social media is the dose of sugar to help the spoonful of medicine go down. “It makes it a lot more fun to view these cases,” Kesslemen says. “When you can make it more social and interactive it makes it easier to digest the information and remember it.”

Figure 1 isn’t the only social media for doctors out there. Doximity is the “Facebook for doctors” where medical professionals have full profiles with their information and can securely communicate with each other, HIPAA-compliant, about other patients’ conditions. In the case of Doximity, the technology can even be life-saving. As we’ve covered, one Doximity doctor was able to get information about an epileptic emergency room patient’s conditions when she came in undergoing a cardiac arrest much faster through the e-fax system. It saved him fifteen to thirty minutes of vital time.

Figure 1 is less about such instant communication and more about ongoing education. “I don’t think directly it would be life saving,” Kasselmen says. “But it’s starting to grow now where it’s allowing people to keep up to date on things that are changing in medicine.”