Debunking the myth of the lone maverick, health researchers suggest that groups of doctors outperform individuals not only in diagnosing problems but also in treating them.

Should you crowdsource your medical problems?

Sometime in 1995, an e-mail from China arrived in my inbox with a desperate request for medical advice. I was a naïve medical student at Johns Hopkins University and an early adopter of the modem; the e-mail’s author was identified only as “Peking University.” In broken English, the message described a 21-year-old woman who had felt sick to her stomach and within days lost all her hair. This problem went away, but a few months later, “She Began to facial paralysis, central muscle of eye’s paralysis, self-controlled respiration disappeared,” and needed to be put on a ventilator. “This is the first time that Chinese try to find help from Internet,” the message explained. “Please send back e-mail to us.” With immature confidence I consulted some texts and replied that maybe she had a weird form of lupus. I never heard back and figured it was a prank.

The following year at the supermarket, I was browsing the August issue of Reader’s Digest and saw a piece titled “Rescue on the Internet.” It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who’d replied to the posting, and the whole thing had not been a hoax. Incredibly, hundreds of doctors had seen the brief message and correctly determined that the patient was being poisoned by a tasteless, odorless heavy metal called thallium. Soon after, Chinese doctors were able to give an antidote to save the woman’s life. (She did end up permanently disabled.)

I get those emails all the time…