Grey's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey is no stranger to a healthy cause. In addition to playing a (hot) doctor on a hit TV show, the 48-year-old actor is now supporting a health tech startup called CrowdMed, a website that uses crowdsourcing to help patients with undiagnosed diseases find hope and solutions.
“The inspiration was my sister Carly, who spent three years with a really terrible undiagnosed medical condition," says Jared Heyman, the founder and CEO of CrowdMed. "She eventually did get a diagnosis—a very rare disease called fragile ex-associated primary ovarian insufficiency (FXPOI)—but only after seeing about 20 doctors, racking up six-figure medical bills, and a whole lot of suffering."
Heyman wants to offer patients a cheaper, faster way to find difficult answers. With CrowdMed, you fill out an interactive questionnaire about your symptoms and medical and family history on the website. CrowdMed then makes you anonymous before passing the case over to a community of medical detectives, a mix of medical experts—doctors, med students, researchers, scientists, and nutritionists—and laymen across a wide variety of different specialties and backgrounds who collaborate to solve each case. During beta-testing, it was actually a layman who first picked up that Heyman's sister had FXPOI because they knew someone in their life who suffered from it too.
“Using this methodology, we've been able to solve cases about 50 times faster and about 200 times cheaper than a traditional approach of the patient bouncing from doctor to doctor,” explains Heyman, who notes that the average patient has been sick for six years by the time they submit their case to CrowdMed. Since launching this online service in April 2013, Heyman's medical detectives, which are now in the thousands, have solved 250 medical cases.
Heyman met Dempsey a few months ago through one of his investors. After spending an hour with the actor explaining to him everything about the site, Heyman saw him light up. “He loved our approach and was immediately passionate about what we're doing and wants to help us get the word out. He also knows what it's like to see a loved one suffer for years.”
"I’ve seen firsthand the profound vulnerability you feel when you first realize something is wrong, and the helplessness that comes along with not knowing everything about your diagnosis or treatment options," Dempsey says. His mother Amanda has been successfully battling a type of ovarian cancer that returns every two years since 1998. In response to his mom's illness, Dempsey and his sister, Mary, opened a cancer facility in their Maine hometown five years ago. To raise money for The Dempsey Center, which Mary runs, Dempsey hosts a two-day walk, run, or cycle charity event called the Dempsey Challenge every fall (he even participates in the bike ride!).
Although Dempsey has had plenty of practice “diagnosing” rare conditions on Grey's Anatomy, Heyman isn't holding his breath that the star will become a medical detective for the site, though he's thrilled just to have Dempsey's support. It's a McDream come true.