Hacking To Improve Health Care – WGBH News Investigates Rare Disease Hackathon

March 21, 2014

Hundreds of students, doctors, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs gathered in an innovation incubator at MIT this past weekend. Their goal? To develop solutions to some of health care’s most perplexing problems.

While most of the “hackers” at Healthcare’s Grand H@ckfest were from the Boston area, some came from as far away as Japan and India. They all had one thing in common.

“We’re all super-nerds here,” said Andrea Ippolito, a PhD student at MIT. “Super awkward. Don’t be shy. Don’t worry about a thing.”

Ippolito co-leads the student group Hacking Medicine, which has nothing to do with violating computer security.

“At MIT, we think of hacking as a really positive thing,” she said. “It means getting things done in a really short period of time and making a difference.”

During the 48-hour hackathon, about 400 strangers became collaborators. With diverse backgrounds and skill sets, many are new to healthcare. But that’s a good thing, because one of the hackathon’s goals is to bring new, innovative thinkers into the field in an attempt to solve some of healthcare’s most pervasive problems.

During “pitch sessions” the participants share ideas. Dr. Marjory Bravard, who treats acutely ill patients at at Massachusetts General Hospital, pitched a problem she sees everyday


‘At MIT, we think of hacking as a really positive thing. It means getting things done in a really short period of time and making a difference.’

“How many of you are health professionals who have had this experience?” she asked. “A bunch of doctors get together, spend a lot of time talking about a patient, make a big decision, and then very little of it is actually documented in the chart?”

Several people raise their hands.

“There is a lot of really thoughtful conversation that happens that never gets documented, and then a lot of big decisions like people dying or going to the operating room happen because of that,” Bravard said. “We don’t have a good way of documenting that because we are too busy. So is there a way that we can capture that thought so that we can document more of the important things that actually matter?”

Pitches like these spark conversation. Participants are encouraged to network with people they would not normally come into contact with in their daily lives. Doctors talk with software developers. Health researchers share ideas with engineers. They form teams around a specific problem, like the one Bravard pitched about documenting doctors’ important decisions about patients. And then the teams start creating solutions.

“These guys have been doing some Google Glass for some time, so they are somewhat experienced.” said Konstantin Klitenik, a software engineer at UTC Aerospace Systems who joined a team working with Google Glass technology. “I’m totally new to Google Glass, but, you know, I made a try at picking it up.”

The team’s idea was to use Google Glass to document doctor-patient encounters. The team worked together for about 12 hours to create an application they’ve named Pocket. Klitenik let me give it a whirl.

With a tap of her finger and a simple voice command, a doctor can open a patient’s electronic medical record. The doctor can then document the patient’s complaints, and make other notes.

This app for Google glass was just one of many inventions developed at the hackathon this past weekend. Others included a low-budget atrial defibrillator that is powered by a crank, and shoes that help people with Parkinson’s disease walk more easily. Several awards of $1,000 were given to teams with the most well designed solutions, but neurogeneticist Sharon Moalem said the real prize was the collaboration.

“You would say, what could you actually accomplish in 48 hours?” Moalem said. “And most people would say, not much.”

Moalem and his team developed a facial-recognition software that helps detect rare diseases. He says his team will keep working on their idea after the hackathon. Several other teams said the same.

“It’s almost like speed dating, you know, for like creativity and research,” she said. “So you, like, ding that bell, and you end up with someone from across the table who’s actually looking at the same problem you are, but from a completely different perspective that then can inform and solve your problem.”

When problems get solved in healthcare, the benefits can be immeasurable. That’s why Healthcare’s Grand H@ckfest is on tour. From MIT here in Cambridge, to Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New York — just some of the cities where the student-led group will bring together innovators in an effort to hack their way to better healthcare.


Thanks to WGHB News for this post.

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