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Health + Hacking: How MIT’s Hacking Medicine Events Are Changing Healthcare

Paul Ford

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When you think of a hackathon, “healthy” may not be the first word that comes to mind. The pop-culture image you envision is probably a windowless room full of bleary-eyed, hunched-over coders, avoiding sleep for days with caffeine and sugar.

These days, health and hackathons are coming together in new ways, with health as the topic, the goal, and the focus of our development efforts. (And we’re cutting back on the Twizzlers and Mountain Dew, in favor of some meditation sessions.)

Earlier this spring, I participated in the MIT Hacking Medicine Mini Health Hackathon at SXSW, part of the MIT #HackMed Health House in Austin. The three-day event included workshops, roundtables and speakers, as well as the Sunday afternoon mini-hackathon. The concept that my team and I developed made it through and brought us to the MIT Hacking Medicine 2016 Grand Hack in Boston.

MIT is known not only for its prowess in engineering, but also for its history of campus “hacks”  clever, whimsical pranks students have perpetrated for nearly a century. Our hackathon wasn’t quite the same as making a fire truck appear on a rooftop or turning the side of a building into a giant game of Tetris, but the spirit of good-natured one-upmanship remained.

Also, like the MIT campus hacks, our hackathon wasn’t “just a bunch of computer nerds.” We were marketers, pharmaceutical professionals and business leaders, as well as developers and coders.

Our idea — VIVIAN, a VIrtual VIsiting Nurse — is an app that uses Amazon’s Echo assistant to help people with diabetes after they return home from a disease-related complication. We didn’t win the grand prize, but given the pool of 700 registrants from 28 countries, we were pleased with our showing.

A hospital in the UK is taking the health hackathon concept home to pilot it there for new healthcare solutions. Many corporations, too, were present, looking for new ways to innovate after finding that their hierarchies and siloes weren’t ideating efficiently.

Recent data from Duke shows that, in the last three years, health hackathon ideas have turned into ten companies with $18 million of funding. They’re growing exponentially — and the MIT Hacking Medicine sessions make up 20 percent of them.

We’re taking on the health hackathon challenge here at Intouch, too. Our #ALLin campaign is currently collecting patient stories at fundraising walks and other health-related events around the country, and we’ll use those stories as inspiration in two #ALLin hackathons later this year, all part of our effort to harness the power of learning from patients.

It was a fascinating experience to be part of my first health hackathon and amazing to see how easily health does lend itself to “hacking.” Healthcare is a complex field where every issue has so many relevant factors. That means that the answers need to come from a lot of individuals with different areas of expertise. The more we can do that, and the more opportunities we can create for that to happen, the better our solutions will be.

 

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