Doctors use magnetic fields and swallowable pill cameras to look inside patients’ bodies. Surgeries are performed with robots and pill-mounted cameras. Yet, in other avenues, the field of medicine seems to be too archaic. Some doctors still carry pagers. Some still write their patients’ diagnosis. Patients still have to call to make appointments, or fill up paperwork at every clinic or hospital they visit.

Indu Subaiya, co-founder and CEO of Health 2.0— a company that promotes new healthcare technologies—recognised the need to fill that gap. Partnering with the US government, she launched the first health hackathon at a national scale in 2010. It provided a playground for innovation, experimentation and solution-building that was sorely needed in the healthcare industry.

So, you ask: what exactly is a “health hackathon”?

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A trip down memory lane

1950s — Contrary to the common perception of the word ‘hack’ (i.e. associated negatively with computer viruses and misuse of technology); the term actually echoed some positive origins, in the halls of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “writing a computer programme for enjoyment”.

1999 — John Gage of Sun Microsystems borrowed the term, blended it with the word ‘marathon’ – to pose a challenge of creating an innovative product to programmers at a conference in Silicon Valley. Since, marking the term’s début.

2010 — A collaboration between Health 2.0 and Health Datapalooza witnessed the first healthcare hackathon.

2012 — Two years after the first health hackathon gained national attention in the US, Luc Sirois co-founded Hacking Health at Montreal, Quebec, Canada – as a global movement to improve healthcare by “breaking down barriers to innovation in healthcare”.

2014 — The world's largest hackathon to date, was held in Canada, witnessing approximately 700 participants. 

The growth of health hackathons, from 2010 to 2014. Source: The Health care Blog
The growth of health hackathons, from 2010 to 2014. Source: The Health care Blog

Although hackathons first got their start in the 1990s—long been the staple events in the technology industry—the bottom-up approach to push for ‘disruptive’ innovation (from the ground up) has since been making its way into healthcare and medicine. Despite only a handful of healthcare-related hackathons took centre stage in 2010—there have been more than 100 hackathons leading this technology revolution—aimed to find more innovative solutions to problems in the global health scene, since then.

Hackathons usually bring together people of various professional fields – e.g. software developers, entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and even students. In teams, they go through marathon brainstorming sessions, which usually lasts about 24 to 48 hours—witnessing each participant attempt to tackle current problems faced by various industries.

The whole format has certainly proven to be successful, having produced some innovative and feasible solutions. Today, we are seeing more and more companies, non-profit groups, universities, and organisations scramble to sponsor hackathons—in hopes of acquiring innovative technology.


Get right on it: What happens at a health hackathon?

To kickstart a (health) hackathon, participants are customarily invited to make 60-second pitches about a problem the healthcare industry is facing. It could be as simple as a doctor-booking app, to something more niche, such as an accessible database that stores blueprints for 3D print prosthetics.

Participants then self-divide into mixed groups, either joining someone’s idea or seeking other participants who has the necessary skill sets they need. With an element of competition, teams with the most promising ideas will walk away with cash prizes – and most importantly, a foot in the door to resources as well as people connections, who can help grow your idea into a real business.

Hackathons usually bring together people of various professional fields – software developers, entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and even students.
Hackathons usually bring together people of various professional fields – software developers, entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and even students.

This strays away from conventional medical conferences and makes health hackathons a much sought-after event—mainly because they hint at a shift in medical culture.

Nonetheless, critics have also highlighted that health hackathons may be inadequate to address the more complex problems of the healthcare industry. (After all, how can a concrete solution be formed within two days?)

Collaboration meets Competition: Let’s start hacking!

For health hackathon advocates, they admit that it is not a “cure-all”—but, it provides an unparalleled innovation opportunity because it has the unique ability of including patients into the development of a solution.

Apart from that, the unity of diverse stakeholders has been the main feature of the success of health hackathons. The healthcare industry has been largely siloed. And hackathons break down that wall by engaging professionals from software developers to entrepreneurs to clinicians, fostering collaboration.

The rapid formation of a tangible idea is also a key feature of health hackathons. Participants are able to work in highly cross-functional teams, facilitating continuous conception and testing of ideas. The exchange of professional skill sets between participants is also an eye-opening experience for many.

This contrasts from academic institutions where they are often ‘too’ removed from clinical realities, and fail to incorporate important business questions which are required to drive a new product to market.

Big players of the industry who sponsor the events, are also too rigid and siloed for cross-disciplinary teams, as well as the willingness to fail, learn and retry. As such, they can benefit from being able to gauge the feasibility of an idea, or be inspired by a culture and mindset of innovation. Hackathons are the neutral, “safe” space to do this.

Health hackathons are here to stay

Luc Sirois, co-founder of the Hacking Health movement, hopes everybody would be a health hacker – especially those who face challenges or issues in the healthcare industry. Photo credit: HBS Photographer
Luc Sirois, co-founder of the Hacking Health movement, hopes everybody would be a health hacker – especially those who face challenges or issues in the healthcare industry. Photo credit: HBS Photographer

For Hacking Health’s co-founder and chairman, Mr Sirois, the mission is to improve healthcare via “collaborative innovation and a very bottom-up approach”.

“We are an association of leaders who act locally—in their community and ecosystem—but think globally, learn from and share the best practices in relevant fields,” added Sirois.

Health hackathons have also proven that they do lead to consistent output for medical technology innovation, clinical trials, business development, securing investment funding and new company formation. And, what’s apparent is that the unique selling points of hackathons do offer valuable mechanism of diverse collaboration. This could have a lasting impact on our healthcare industry—perhaps a more inclusive, smarter and efficient way of enacting solutions for medicine and public health.

Question is, what would you come up within 48 hours? MIMS

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Sources:
https://www.wired.com/2014/06/medical-technology-hackathons-are-saving-lives-we-need-more/
http://hackingmedicine.mit.edu/health-hackathon-database/
http://business.financialpost.com/entrepreneur/growth-strategies/how-a-group-of-hackers-is-working-to-solve-canadas-looming-health-care-crisis
https://medcitynews.com/2014/08/hackathons-returning-medicine-roots/?rf=1
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indu_Subaiya
https://www.wired.com/2012/02/ff_hackathons/all/1/