Michael Vassar, 34, is one of the world’s leading theorists on existential risk—as in cataclysmic events that would pretty much wipe out the human race. He’s also spent much of his career thinking about developing artificial-intelligence software intended to yield supersmart machines dedicated to helping people, rather than a legion of HALs or Terminators. Last year he co-founded MetaMed, a startup that seeks to use data analysis techniques to better diagnose patients facing grave illnesses.
At its core, MetaMed tries to offer a second opinion that’s more nuanced and more thoroughly researched than those of most general practitioners. When a patient contacts the company and provides information about his or her illness, staffers enter the data into an analysis and collaboration system that enlists a team of consultants from a growing 40-person network. In addition to physicians and medical specialists, there are chemists, molecular biologists, data scientists, librarians, and others—some of these experts are salaried, some are paid per consult. Researchers drawn from Google and top universities compare the patient’s case with the latest scientific studies, medical journals, and health data, seek out the procedures and hospitals that offer them the best chance at recovery, and give patients a wider look at their treatment options than a physician might provide. Jaan Tallinn, one of the chief engineers behind Skype, is the company’s chairman. “Our attitude is that medicine would be better if it were more of a science than an art,” Vassar says.
Vassar tends to talk like that, reducing complex human issues to equations that need solving. Before launching MetaMed, he was executive director of the Singularity Institute, now the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit that attracts libertarians and science fiction fans. Some of the institute’s biggest backers have helped finance Vassar’s new venture. Peter Thiel, the hedge fund manager and an original Facebook investor, provided the medical networking startup with $500,000. The company charges $5,000 and up for its screening services and analysis and is aimed mostly at wealthy patients, though MetaMed says it also offers financial aid.
Through his rationalist lens, Vassar sees the medical system as an imperfect one that needs more input from a wider range of sources. Physicians, reasonably, form many opinions at school and tend to pursue diagnoses and treatments comparable to those their colleagues prescribe. And don’t get Vassar started on the influence of pharmaceutical company representatives. “Doctors only have part of the experience you would ideally want,” he says. “They also usually lack a statistical background or a very in-depth scientific background. They’re just not well suited for making distinctions between claims.”
MetaMed’s dozens of early patients, who found it through word of mouth, suggest there’s a market for an alternative to the medical status quo. Two who wouldn’t discuss their health problems publicly say they’d recommend the service, but it doesn’t come cheap. The first paid MetaMed $8,000 for a 10-page report and a series of consultations for a unique form of non-UV-related skin cancer; the second paid $5,000 for analysis of his heart condition. The first patient says MetaMed helps sift through medical jargon, dozens of studies, and Internet quackery during a fragile time. When people first are diagnosed with cancer, they’re flooded with information and have 10 to 20 days to make a choice about what they should do, he says, adding that he felt the need for an unbiased assessment.
The second patient, a London investment banker, says MetaMed helped him decide to get stents to treat his heart disease. It highlighted a couple of areas where his profile didn’t fit the studies on which his other doctors were basing their decisions. The medical system tries to minimize costs by aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, he says, adding that he cares more about maximizing his life span than minimizing costs. He prefers MetaMed’s model of having more people look at his specific case.
Alwyn Cassil, director of public affairs at the Center for Studying Health System Change, describes MetaMed’s service as “niche,” noting that people who can afford a medical consultant can probably afford to visit the top hospital for a particular condition. “It certainly can’t hurt to have more information, but it probably makes the most sense to get yourself to the best place to get treated,” says Cassil. He adds that “most health care is not that exotic” and that people will typically find that doctors have solid underpinnings for their decisions.
Vassar, though, remains a skeptic of how medicine is currently practiced. He isn’t pursuing health-care insurers to cover his MetaMed services, which aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “We would much rather incrementally lower prices via economies of scale than work with insurance, which empirically leads to incrementally rising prices,” he says. So far, MetaMed is relying on positive reviews and referrals from its clientele. Helping to keep costs down, many of the company’s founders are independently wealthy and can go without pay for the time being, says Vassar. “This should be a division of labor thing—just hire half the world’s Nobel laureates and Harvard professors and have people think things over,” he says.