LOS ANGELES -- If one thing remains true in the rapidly changing world of television, it's that viewers love a medical mystery. The Patient With the Obscure Ailment That Baffles Physicians has been a fixture on hospital dramas for as long as they've existed. Unexplained illnesses fueled eight seasons of the Fox series "House," which starred Hugh Laurie as a brilliant but misanthropic diagnostician, not to mention countless daytime talk show segments and sensational reality series on cable.
Two new shows, "Diagnosis" on Netflix and "Chasing the Cure" on TNT/TBS, put a new spin on the age-old question "What's ailing me, doc?" by using crowdsourcing to diagnose people suffering from unexplained illnesses.
While the shows differ dramatically in tone, style and format, both operate from the same basic assumption: that finding an answer for these patients means bucking standard medical practice and presenting their cases to a mass audience. Premiering within weeks of each other, the shows arrive at a moment when mistrust of the medical establishment, negative views of the American health care system and the use of crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe to pay for health care are increasing.
But leveraging the perceived wisdom of the crowd -- most of whom are not medical professionals -- and sharing sensitive medical information with potentially millions of strangers also raise a number of ethical and practical questions, starting with the obvious: Does the crowd really know that much?
The answer, say those involved, is an emphatic yes.
"The assumption is that the crowd doesn't know anything," says Ann Curry, anchor and executive producer of "Chasing the Cure." "The truth is, the crowd knows a lot. When you're dealing with unsolved cases of people suffering, there's a chance that someone out there has experienced similar symptoms, or (there's a) medical professional who has dealt with a similar case."
"Chasing the Cure" combines a live broadcast with pretaped segments, giving it the look and feel of daytime television. Led by the former "Today" host, each hour-long episode zips through three or four cases, introduced in brief videos. A panel of specialists convenes to review the files, then meets live on air with the patients to discuss possible diagnoses. Some even undergo treatments that are broadcast on the show.
It also leans heavily on social media: Viewers are urged to call or text a toll-free number, tweet using a designated hashtag and visit an elaborate website to review individual case files, provide tips or share their own experiences. The goal, Curry says, is "to democratize data."
While the live element of the program means that not every patient receives a firm diagnosis, they all leave with a recommended path forward. "Each patient should walk away feeling like 'I got some information that I needed, some support that I needed, and I was pointed in the right direction,'" says executive producer and showrunner Kim Bondy.
The idea for "Chasing the Cure" emerged after a colleague of Curry's saw a post on Facebook seeking donations for someone with an undiagnosed illness; she realized that live television could amplify this kind of appeal. So far, it seems to be doing just that: The premiere episode of "Chasing the Cure" drew 1 million viewers. More than 10,000 people have registered to use the website and are active in the case files, according to TNT and TBS.