When physician Bon Ku met with a woman whose jaw had been ravaged by cancer, he showed her a model of her jaw that had been made with a 3-D printer at Thomas Jefferson University.
Ku said that she might be a candidate for reconstructive surgery and that the model could be used to guide that procedure.
Was he right? Unlike the usual setting in which Ku dispenses medical advice — the emergency room at Jefferson University Hospital — a live TV audience and thousands of social-media users were on hand to weigh in.
Ku’s discussion with the patient took place during the Aug. 15 broadcast of Chasing the Cure, a weekly TV show about challenging medical cases that is hosted by Ann Curry. He is one of several featured physicians on the show, which airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on TBS and TNT.
In an interview, Ku discussed the power of this public approach to medicine and the importance of handling each case responsibly.
Ku, who directs the Jefferson health design lab where the jaw model was made, said he was not sure how the show’s producers identified him as a potential TV personality. He suspects they may have seen one of several talks he has given at conferences with a nonmedical audience, such as South by Southwest.
“I didn’t want a TV career,” he said. “But the platform was so compelling … using crowd-sourcing in real time.”
Each week, Ku and his colleagues review case files from patients who have struggled with daunting medical problems, often for years, without answers. The team hashes out possible diagnoses and treatments during prerecorded segments, then meets the patients live in the studio with Curry as moderator. Simultaneously, viewers submit suggestions via social media, a few of which the doctors mention on the air.
Call it the next logical progression in the era of “Dr. Google” — the term for when laypeople comb the internet for medical advice.
At least one other medically themed show, the Netflix series Diagnosis, has sought comments from the public, though not on live TV. Critics have warned that the crowd’s input can be harmful, citing a case in which that show’s viewers belittled a patient who suffered from bouts of vomiting.
Acknowledging that crowd-sourcing can yield questionable ideas, Ku said the key was to handle the submissions with care. On Chasing the Cure, an off-screen staff with medical training sifts through the suggestions, sharing only those that seem most promising.
For example with the cancer patient, a woman from Dade City, Fla. named Shannon, a therapist messaged the TV show to say she might benefit from massage to break up scar tissue.
Dallas family medicine specialist James Pinckney II, one of Ku’s costars, agreed that this kind of therapy could help some patients, but cautioned that Shannon was too fragile.
In another social-media post, a physician suggested that hyperbaric oxygen therapy would help Shannon heal. The onscreen medical team agreed.
Ku said he treats the TV patients as he would anyone who comes to the Jefferson E.R. in Philadelphia — with one difference.
“We are not supplanting or taking over the care that they already have,” he said. “We are simply adding more data, more expert opinions on these cases.”
He said he and his colleagues typically contact the patients’ physicians to share insight, though it can be a challenge.
In one case, an Alaska mother and daughter plagued by mysterious vision problems said they had been to more than 100 doctors.
“It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle that someone opens and just spills out,” Ku said. “We’re picking up all these pieces, and we’re trying to put them together.”
The diagnosis for the mother and daughter turned out to represent a piece of medical history. The show arranged for them to undergo genetic tests, revealing that they suffered from a rare illness called Warburg-Cinotti syndrome. The condition had previously been identified in just six others around the world, Ku said.
“This is absolutely mind-blowing,” Ku said on the Aug. 29 episode of the show. “I think this is one of the most exciting cases of my career.”
The patients said they realized that diagnosis was just a first step toward possible treatments, such as a corneal transplant. But simply being able to put a name to their condition, along with knowing that a handful of others shared it, was helpful, said the daughter, Delaney.
“It’s like we’re not alone anymore,” she said.
Other cases on the show are not mysteries so much as intractable problems, such as patients who struggle to get care because they can’t afford it. In one case, the show put a lower-income patient in touch with a physician who agreed to provide complex dental care at no cost.
Ku, whose parents worked in flea markets during his childhood and did not have health insurance, can relate. When he suffered a skateboarding injury at 13, his father paid cash for a visit to an orthopedic specialist in northern New Jersey, Ku recalled.
“That was probably most of our income for the week,” he said. “I felt extremely guilty as a child. What’s sad is that still happens in our country.”