Hackathons for healthcare


Healthcare innovations are no longer confined to research labs. Following the IT sector’s lead, hospitals and other healthcare organizations have begun executing a new kind of project to develop life-saving solutions: hackathons. The competitive around-the-clock events have traditionally brought together software developers and entrepreneurs to rapidly build applications from scratch.

Healthcare hackathons add medical experts and engineers into the mix to identify the sector’s pressing needs and help devise solutions. The stakeholder landscape—including corporate funders looking for certain types of breakthroughs—is complex, but strong project leadership can keep everyone moving in the same direction.


“The core idea is to bring people together across disciplines, across sectors and across geographies.”

—Elizabeth Bailey, CAMTech, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

“We want people to focus on a problem, rather than jumping to the technology,” Allison Yost, co-director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Hacking Medicine, told Slate.

At one hackathon put on by Ms. Yost’s organization, a team tackled the costly patient scheduling problems that bedevil U.S. doctor offices. The solution: an algorithm that optimizes schedules and minimizes patient wait times by mining patient data to predict who is likely to miss or cancel an appointment.

Along with Hacking Medicine, organizations such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) have planned and executed hackathons.

Launched in 2012, CAMTech events aim to generate healthcare innovations for low- and middle-income countries in just 48 hours. The organization has executed seven hackathons in India, Uganda and the United States. The planning phase typically lasts three months, and budgets range from about US$50,000 to US$300,000.

At each hackathon’s start, participants (known as “hackers”) have 60 seconds to present a healthcare challenge and pitch an idea to solve it. Everyone then self-assembles into small teams, gravitating to the pitch that most interests them. At the event’s conclusion, each team presents its rapidly prototyped solution to a judging panel—with prizes, potential development opportunities and winners’ bragging rights at stake.

“The core idea is to bring people together across disciplines, across sectors and across geographies,” says Elizabeth Bailey, director, CAMTech, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

The CAMTech team works to ensure that participants at every hackathon represent three disciplines: medicine, engineering and business. “The most exciting innovation happens at the intersection of those three fields,” says Smitha Gudapakkam, business development manager, CAMTech.

Clinicians, who represent the innovations’ end users, might point out that a nifty-sounding technology wouldn’t work in practice. Meanwhile, an engineer might observe that an innovation is just not technologically possible, or a businessperson might note that it couldn’t be manufactured at a price that would drive mass adoption.

The different sets of expertise inform and correct one another.

“So you have this rapid iteration process where people are free to throw out anything, but bad ideas are killed pretty quickly,” Ms. Bailey says. “The ideas where you have clinical, engineering and business buy-in—those are the ideas that take shape.”

Temple of Mithras ruins in London, England

Temple of Mithras ruins in London, England


A New Kind of Ambulance

One CAMTech innovation has taken shape in Uganda.

During a 2013 hackathon in Mbarara, Uganda, a team visited a local maternity ward where a woman was hemorrhaging. Nurses explained that, like many patients, she did not have access to reliable transportation so she could not get to the hospital quickly. Ambulances are often in a state of disrepair.

So the team created an innovation that took advantage of a widespread mode of transportation that Uganda does have: motorcycles. By the end of the hackathon, the team designed a stretcher that could be attached to motorcycles, turning them into makeshift ambulances.

After winning a CAMTech award of US$10,000, the project team has continued to develop its prototype, which is now in its third iteration.

“We’re very interested in commercial viability,” Ms. Bailey says. “Our agenda is to build entrepreneurial capacity to generate a pipeline of products that have the potential to be innovative, impactful and viable.”

A group works at a Hacking Medicine event

A group works at a Hacking Medicine event.


At each hackathon’s start, participants (known as “hackers”) have 60 seconds to present a healthcare challenge and pitch an idea to solve it.

Incentivizing Stakeholders

To ensure hackathons attract talented participants, CAMTech relies on partners such as the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda and Glocal Healthcare in India, as well as extensive outreach through social media.

Yet there are stakeholders beyond the hackers with their own—sometimes conflicting—agendas. One CAMTech funder, the United States Agency for International Development, seeks innovations bolstering maternal and child health in India, Ms. Bailey says. Meanwhile, corporate sponsors may want to continue to serve higher-end markets in low-income and developed countries, while expanding their reach into developing markets.

Securing buy-in from the myriad funders and other stakeholders while remaining aligned with CAMTech’s global health mission is “one of the things that keeps me up at night,” Ms. Bailey says.

To guarantee that buy-in, funders promote their own agendas by awarding prizes. For instance, brewing company Anheuser-Busch InBev has sponsored awards for innovations addressing road safety, a major public health issue. (Nine out of every 10 deaths due to traffic collisions occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.) “If you create just a small incentive around a specific challenge, you drive activity in that area,” Ms. Bailey says.

To ensure that all that activity remains aligned with each hackathon’s strategic goals, CAMTech and its partner organizations bring in mentors who circulate around the room, providing the hacking teams with expertise and an outside eye. “They help make sure the teams are working on new ideas pertinent to the focus of the hackathon, not ideas that have already been worked on,” Ms. Gudapakkam says.

For all their cutting-edge savvy, the hackathons could not succeed without the right people. “It boils down to having passionate people who care about the innovation process and want to make a change in healthcare,” Ms. Gudapakkam says. —Novid Parsi




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