Tech company model that promotes innovation comes to health care
- Copyright © 2015 by the American Academy of Pediatrics
Many of us have great ideas to improve patient care, but we lack the technological and entrepreneurial skills to turn those ideas into reality. What if you had the resources, support and connections to bring those innovations to fruition?
“Hackathons” — the problem-solving sessions that have been around in the computer programming world for at least a decade — are showing promise in the health care arena. The goal of these hacking marathons is to develop new solutions to problems or improve on current systems. Hackathons were popularized by the rapid growth of the tech community in the early 2000s as a method for companies to encourage innovation internally.
In 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Hacking Medicine was developed to extend the hackathon model into health care. In 2013, Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT Hacking Medicine established Hacking Pediatrics to focus exclusively on health care issues related to pediatrics. Its goal is to help children and their families, while enabling clinicians to be innovators and find the right team to help execute their ideas (DePasse JW, et al. “Less noise, more hacking: How to deploy principles from MIT’s hacking medicine to accelerate health care.” ( Int J Technol Assess Health Care. 2014;30:260-264OpenUrlPubMed).
Hackathons are based on three core principles. The first is that they focus on a “pain point” or real-world problem faced by a user, a patient or a health care provider. The second principle is that hackathons physically bring together people from different disciplines so they can focus on developing solutions to these problems in a short period of time, typically 24 hours to several days. The third principle is that ideas should challenge existing paradigms and incorporate rapid feedback cycles to allow for speedy improvements to solidify the ideas.
A hackathon typically starts with people pitching their problems or pain points to the masses assembled. Then, individuals divide themselves into interdisciplinary groups, often comprised of clinicians, parents/patient advocates, engineers, computer programmers, designers and entrepreneurs. Next, groups brainstorm solutions to the problem and go through multiple cycles to refine their ideas. Hackathons typically conclude with a presentation of the ideas, judging and awards. Prizes usually are monetary support or additional mentorship.
“When you mash those different skill sets together, it leads to great synergy,” said Michael Docktor, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and co-founder of Hacking Pediatrics. “The real value is getting people together and teaching them to think differently and empowering them.”
What has come of two years of Hacking Pediatrics?
One of the winning teams in 2013 developed a software platform to help families of children with food allergies, and they are launching a company called KindrdFood. Two nurses from Boston Children’s who last year pitched the problem of sorting through complicated vaccine stocks now are working on a digital solution to streamline the vaccine supply chain. Other ideas generated from Hacking Medicine have gone on to become successful start-up companies, including PillPack and Podimetrics.
While hackathons are fun meetings of the minds with proven success, most pediatricians don’t have the opportunity to participate in one. There may be opportunities closer to home to help clinicians turn their innovative ideas into reality.
Centers of Innovations with missions similar to hackathons are being developed in many large university-affiliated hospitals, including Boston Children’s, University of California Health Campuses, Mayo Clinic and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Many of these centers bring together researchers, industry and investors to help foster new ideas by providing resources such as funding, infrastructure or mentorship.
Dr. Docktor encourages clinicians to cultivate these collaborations.
“Get out of the building and collaborate with other people in the university (and other settings) that want to do things that have impact but don’t know how to. Nurture those collaborations and make a network,” he said.
Hackathons and Centers of Innovation show that the process of product development used in high-tech companies is applicable to health care. The goal is to inspire and encourage individuals to think outside the box and challenge traditional paradigms to develop solutions for everyday problems faced by patients and health care providers. The possibilities stemming from collaboration with experts from a variety of disciplines are endless.
Dr. Chen is a member of the AAP Council on Clinical Information Technology.