In 1786, a lengthy caravan of mules journeyed from Florence to Vienna carrying a thousand or so anatomical wax models, among them a recumbent “Medical Venus.” Possessing a mermaid’s head of golden hair, the sorry goddess had been sliced from sternum to stomach, yet still wore her pearls. She and her colleagues were exhibited for the education of medical students as well as the gawking of a prurient public. The models had been a special commission for the Italian sculptor Clemente Susini, later praised for “the beauty he gave to the most revolting things.”
And so it is with Figure 1, a free medical photo-sharing app — “Instagram for doctors.” Who knew a portrait of an #ingrown-toenail removal could be so gorgeously gory: the tender alabaster big toe, bloody and raw where half the nail has been sliced off, the remaining half with its shimmering silvery chipped polish worn down to nearly nothing, and a few unkempt hairs puncturing the glamour.
Doctors and health-care professionals typically don’t get the skeevies from this sort of thing (though of course individuals react to certain things, like eyeballs). Gross-anatomy class takes care of that early, and later, when gore comes through the door in the form of living people spraying about their innards, the focus is on helping. A combination of the two — educating and helping — is what motivated Josh Landy, an internist and critical-care-medicine specialist in Toronto, to create Figure 1, together with communications professor Gregory Levey and software developer Richard Penner. Algorithms and digital tools ensure privacy (smudging faces and tattoos), and privacy moderators review images; uploading prompts an automatic patient-consent form.
The idea crystallized for Landy, 34, while he was on a fellowship at Stanford during the summer of 2012. He studied how young physicians use their phones for consulting and sharing pictures on their own mobile devices. He realized the value in leveraging that behavior, in archiving the 10,000 or so images professionals post every single day — it would be a powerful workflow and educational tool. “Medical education has always been about team learning,” he says. “Learning in med school comes from textbooks. When you’re done, you end up working on teams. You are either the lowest, middle, or highest rung on the ladder, and the minute you are no longer the most junior person, it is your job to teach the people who are on the rungs below you. And the more cases you see, the more exposure you get, the better you get.”
Launched in May 2013, Figure 1 has a user base of hundreds of thousands. Ninety-two percent of that is health-care professionals: about a third are physicians and med students; another third are nurses, nurse practitioners, and nursing students; and the remainder are paramedics, pharmacists, physiotherapists, acupuncturists.
And a recent internal study also divided usage stats into even thirds: There’s diagnostic or treatment advice — for instance, an unruly distended abdomen, inflated like a beach ball, prompted an ER doctor to ask, “Why would the stomach fill up with air like this?? I was completely taken aback.” There’s education and teaching, with a show-and-tell FYI ethos generating posts about unique, unusual, complex, or subtle cases. And there’s quiz time, such as, “All of these [ECG] rhythms were shocked. Pick the one that was actually shockable.” As for those seeking quick and cheap medical advice, “we’ve got a very strict ‘no selfie’ policy,” says Landy.
*This article appears in the June 8, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.