Emergency Medicine Physician Goes in Search of the Cure

June 11, 2014
Ed Rabinowitz

Emergency medicine physician Charles Rocamboli has been inquisitive since he was a child, and as an adult this trait has fueled his development of a medical search engine that crowd sources patient feedback.

Charles Rocamboli, MD, knew early on that clinical research was in his blood. But it wasn’t because his father was an aerospace engineer, or because his grades in science-related courses were strong. Instead, it was his inquisitive mind. He was one of those people who couldn’t stop asking questions.

“They had a phrase in medical school called memorize and move on,” Rocamboli recalls. “And my friends would yell at me all the time, because I would be stuck on a particular area and I would refuse to go forward until I really understood the specifics of it, especially when there was conflicting information. I would bring books on different subject matters to my professors and tell them, ‘well, explain this then.’ And it would get me stuck. Not so stuck that I wouldn’t perform, but it was something I couldn’t handle in terms of just memorizing and moving on.”

Today, Rocamboli has moved on, becoming a successful emergency medicine physician. But his inquisitive mind remains intact, and has fueled his development of CureCrowd, a medical search engine that “crowd sources” patient feedback to find the highest-rated treatments for nearly every medical condition.

A grand start

Rocamboli’s affinity for emergency medicine developed in an unorthodox fashion. He had not yet finished his residency when he was offered the opportunity to practice medicine in the Grand Canyon—basically, he ran a free-standing emergency room for a year.

“They never would have hired me if it weren’t for the fact that [the facility] probably would have closed if I had not accepted,” he recalls.

For the next year, Rocamboli read every medical article he could get his hands on. In the process, he often found information/conclusions with which he didn’t agree.

“I think the fact that I did a lot of my learning independently gave me some independent thinking.” The first time he had to set a fracture, he had an orthopedic surgeon on speakerphone talking him through the process. “That was probably not very encouraging to the patient, but everything worked out. And it was a unique opportunity for me to get my hands dirty.”

Finding the cure

Rocamboli says that what he loves most about emergency medicine, and what he feels makes it unique, is the feeling of being on a team. He works closely with 5 or 6 other practitioners, constantly running things by one another. In the process of sharing their thoughts, a lot of anecdotal information surfaces—information on procedures or techniques that could be put into practice.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these techniques are not measured, so when you tell people about those treatment options, a lot of times you look like you’re practicing as a witch doctor, because you don’t have any evidence behind you,” Rocamboli explains. “Meanwhile, as a physician, you know these things work because, again, your colleagues and you use them, and you just want some information to back you up.”

To rectify that ambiguity, Rocamboli developed CureCrowd, a search engine that aggregates these small pieces of anecdotal evidence to make it empirical evidence, so patients and physicians can examine the data and make reasonable and informed decisions. The system, launched just a few months ago, is still in Beta testing, and response to this point has been healthy skepticism.

“Everyone says the same thing,” Rocamboli says. “They’re skeptical at first, which I think is very natural, considering all the information available today. Doctors wonder how the information is valid.”

To answer physician questions, Rocamboli explains the scientific theory behind CureCrowd, what he calls the rule of large numbers.

“If one person says coffee is good for a headache, that’s one thing, but when you have 500 or 5,000, it’s a different story,” he says. “You do have something empirical to stand on. Once you get to that point with physicians they understand what you’re doing, and its importance. And I’ve never pitched this idea to a physician who didn’t want to be involved in it. Because they understand how powerful it can be.”

Reaching out

Rocamboli’s immediate plans for CureCrowd center on reaching out to organizations focusing on diseases that impact small percentages of the population. Research funding for these diseases is hard to come by, and pharmaceutical companies don’t consider the market potential large enough to invest in new product development.

“[The pharmaceutical companies] can’t make enough money for curing Tay-Sachs disease,” Rocamboli says. “However, with our product, we can figure out what works best for those things at minimal expense. So we think right now this can be tremendously valuable to a lot of these orphaned diseases, which is what we’re going to be angled toward for the next 6 months or so.”

The CureCrowd endeavor takes up most of Rocamboli’s time. For example, one of his colleagues is currently in Russia, and Rocamboli will often find himself connecting via Skype at one in the morning. He says the only time his phone is turned off is when he’s working out, or surfing. The physical activity helps him de-stress, and fosters creativity.

“I’ve found that when you’re doing something physical that’s intense enough, everything else that you’re worried about tends to disappear,” he explains. “When you’re worried about a big wave crashing on your head you’re not thinking about CureCrowd, you’re not thinking about your boss, or anything else. You’re thinking about getting out of the way. And then after the break, that’s when some of your most unique thoughts will come out.”

Historic proportions

Rocamboli says his goal with CureCrowd is to ensure that patients receive the proper treatments for whatever health-related condition they may be experiencing. If that happens, he believes the program will have a tremendous impact on medicine.

“I have said it before, and I still stand by this,” he declares. “If [CureCrowd] is a success, it will be the single-most important study in history. I can’t think of any other study that could potentially augment the treatment options for every disease out there.”