'Hackathons' Aim to Solve Health Care's Ills

Amy Dockser Marcus in the Wall Street Journal: “Hackathons, the high-octane, all-night problem-solving sessions popularized by the software-coding community, are making their way into the more traditional world of health care. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a recent event called Hacking Medicine’s Grand Hackfest attracted more than 450 people to work for one weekend on possible solutions to problems involving diabetes, rare diseases, global health and information technology used at hospitals.
Health institutions such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have held hackathons. MIT, meantime, has co-sponsored health hackathons in India, Spain and Uganda.
Hackathons of all kinds are increasingly popular. Intel Corp.  recently bought a group that organizes them. Companies hoping to spark creative thinking sponsor them. And student-run hackathons have turned into intercollegiate competitions.
But in health care, where change typically comes much more slowly than in Silicon Valley, they represent a cultural shift. To solve a problem, scientists and doctors can spend years painstakingly running experiments, gathering data, applying for grants and publishing results. So the idea of an event where people give two-minute pitches describing a problem, then join a team of strangers to come up with a solution in the course of one weekend is radical.
“We are not trying to replace the medical culture with Facebook culture,” said Elliot Cohen, who wore a hoodie over a button-down dress shirt at the MIT event in March and helped start MIT Hacking Medicine while at business school. “But we want to try to blend them more.”
Mr. Cohen co-founded and is chief technology officer at PillPack, a pharmacy that sends customers personalized packages of their medications, a company that started at a hackathon.
At MIT’s health-hack, physicians, researchers, students and a smattering of people wearing Google Glass sprawled on the floor of MIT’s Media Lab and at tables with a view of the Boston skyline. At one table, a group of college students, laptops plastered with stickers, pulled juice boxes and snacks out of backpacks, trash piling up next to them as they feverishly wrote code.
Nupur Garg, an emergency-room physician and one of the eventual winners, finished her hospital shift at 2 a.m. Saturday in New York, drove to Boston and arrived at MIT in time to pitch the need for a way to capture images of patients’ ears and throats that can be shared with specialists to help make diagnoses. She and her team immediately started working on a prototype for the device, testing early versions on anyone who stopped by their table.
Dr. Garg and teammate Nancy Liang, who runs a company that makes Web apps for 3-D printers, caught a few hours of sleep in a dorm room Saturday night. They came up with the idea for their product’s name—MedSnap—later that night while watching students use cellphone cameras to send SnapChats to one another. “There was no time to conduct surveys on what was the best name,” said Ms. Liang. “Many ideas happen after midnight.”
Winning teams in each category won $1,000, as well as access to the hackathons sponsors for advice and pilot projects.
Yet even supporters say hackathons can’t solve medicine’s challenges overnight. Harlan Krumholz, a professor at Yale School of Medicine who ran a many-months trial that found telemonitoring didn’t reduce hospitalizations or deaths of cardiology patients, said he supports the problem-solving ethos of hackathons. But he added that “improvements require a long-term commitment, not just a weekend.”
Ned McCague, a data scientist at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, served as a mentor at the hackathon. He said he wasn’t representing his employer, but he used his professional experiences to push groups to think about the potential customer. “They have a good idea and are excited about it, but they haven’t thought about who is paying for it,” he said.
Zen Chu, a senior lecturer in health-care innovation and entrepreneur-in-residence at MIT, and one of the founders of Hacking Medicine, said more than a dozen startups conceived since the first hackathon, in 2011, are still in operation. Some received venture-capital funding.
The upsides of hackathons were made clear to Sharon Moalem, a physician who studies rare diseases. He had spent years developing a mobile app that can take pictures of faces to help diagnose rare genetic conditions, but was stumped on how to give the images a standard size scale to make comparisons. At the hackathon, Dr. Moalem said he was approached by an MIT student who suggested sticking a coin on the subjects’ forehead. Since quarters have a standard measurement, it “creates a scale,” said Dr. Moalem.
Dr. Moalem said he had never considered such a simple, elegant solution. The team went on to write code to help standardize facial measurements based on the dimensions of a coin and a credit card.
“Sometimes when you are too close to something, you stop seeing solutions, you only see problems,” Dr. Moalem said. “I needed to step outside my own silo.”