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Figure 1 Is Like Instagram, but for Doctors

If you've ever wanted to hop on an app and look at medical maladies, Silicon Valley has the cure for what ails you.
July 20, 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via ReSurge International

There's an old saying about medical professionals and diagnoses: Just because your doctor has a name for your condition doesn't mean he knows what it is. Even now, in an era that has introduced stunning medical advances like multi-check blood-testing, or the new innovations unveiled at EuroMedLab 2015 that will lead to a more efficient diagnostic process, your doctor still might not know what's wrong with you. Last year, CNBC reported that approximately 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed each year, according to a study published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found 31 percent of breast cancer patients in 2008 were over-diagnosed.

This is, obviously, a big deal. When you're misdiagnosed, not only are you receiving incorrect or perhaps extraneous treatment, you could be exacerbating the condition you actually have. Doctors who misdiagnose patients run a serious financial risk. According to a 2013 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, misdiagnosis is also the number-one cause of malpractice lawsuits and subsequent payouts.


Enter Figure 1, an app created by Dr. Joshua Landy, the writer/professor Gregory Levey, and the mobile developer Richard Penner. Released in 2013, the app has hundreds of thousands of users, mostly consisting of medical professionals such as physicians, nurses, and surgeons.

As Landy puts it, medicine is "richly visual," with most early learning in the discipline stimulated by models, case reports, textbooks, etc. Figure 1 embraces that standard and modernizes it for the digital age, making the experience hands-on and mobile. The app basically functions like Instagram for healthcare, with a focus on clinical diagnosis. It can act as a digital databank that catalogs cases, opens dialogues, and disseminates medical information quickly.

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On Figure 1, users can upload an image of any medical case giving them pause, allowing them to seek answers from the online medical community at-large. Uploading is reserved for verified healthcare professionals. You can find everything, from Osteomyelitis with Progressive Amputation to Lichenification, internal abnormalities to external irritants to total medical anomalies. A patient's confidentiality is protected and their consent must first be given before anything can be uploaded. (The website's FAQ page has a detailed privacy policy.) Landy says he built the app to create a deeper well of medical knowledge, a place to "access cases quickly and get collaborative feedback from others."

Still, the functionality of the app suggests it caters to a sense of inquisitiveness among the medical class. One click of the Discover tab (yes, there is one) on the app's website reveals pages full of X-Rays and photographs documenting clinical cases. It's a fascinating piece of tech that, in theory, could help solve all kinds of medical riddles. In short, Figure 1 aims to crowd-source medical expertise. "One of the exciting things about Figure 1," Landy says, "is that the app is now available in more than 100 countries, so people are learning about medical conditions from around the world. For instance, US doctors are able to see cases of measles posted by healthcare professionals in India. Being able to connect with people on the other side of the world who are already dealing with these issues is really useful for patient care." The app gives verified checks—similar to Twitter letting you know it's the real Zayn instead of some devious impostor—to validated healthcare professionals to confirm that users are who they say they are, allowing them to interact with other physicians without worrying about trolls spreading misinformation.


Since its inception in 2013, the app has discovered that funders are just as curious as doctors. At the end of its founding year, Figure 1 raised a $2 million seed round from Canadian venture capitalist firms Version One Ventures and Rho Canada Ventures after impressive early growth. Last year, the app doubled its funding with an additional investment from Union Square Ventures (see a full list of investors here). This is right on par with or just ahead of apps like Switch (pegged as the Tinder for jobs) and The League (a Tinder-esque dating app that draws information from LinkedIn as well as Facebook to create Tinder, but with a dollop of implied classism), both of which are in similar stages of development. According to Figure 1's communications manager Annie Williams, the app is currently in the pre-revenue stage, meaning the investors aren't using money to determine how valuable the app is yet.

Though Figure 1 is intended for use strictly by medical professionals, laypeople are free to download the app, which will offer them what Landy calls a "very limited experience." He admits, "I think it's natural for people to have curiosity about what tools their doctor is using, and they can certainly learn more about us on our website or on our social media where we post the top learning cases." Figure 1 cracks open a door allowing anybody to peer into the medical world. It permits those interested to peruse the unusual and expose themselves to what is tantamount to a private medical conference complete with captioned exhibits. In my short time using the app, I've already seen rashes that look like a clump of boils and a testicle swollen to the size of a cantaloupe.

Image courtesy of Figure 1.

Whether you're a healthcare professional or just an inquisitive dilettante, Figure 1 can expand your understanding of modern medicine. With an easy to maneuver Browse tab, which is divided into two categories—Anatomy and Speciality—a user can find something specific or simply scan the large repository of cataloged images and cases. For professionals, it's like sharing a conference room with colleagues and peers worldwide, all of varying backgrounds and specialties. For amateurs, it's a bit like sitting in every doctors' office simultaneously on their busiest day.

For doctors, it can be truly beneficial to have a second pair of eyes for any given clinical case, and Figure 1 gives them that opportunity tenfold. The app has already started to amass testimonials from users who have found application of the technology can be life-saving: "In one case, a doctor nearly missed a collapsed lung on an X-Ray, but recognized it by having seen something similar on Figure 1 the week prior," Landy says. "In another, a doctor was able to recognize a life-threatening infection by seeing an image on Figure 1."

When it comes to doctors, it's important to get a second opinion; now your doctor can get several with the click of a button.

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