A new approach to healthcare innovation: hospital-hosted hackathons


hack·a·thon (n.): An event, often spanning a period of days, in which programmers and others involved in software, Web or app development come together to create new products, usually under a common theme or in an attempt to solve a problem.

Helen Kotchoubey, corporate director of IT and patient engagement at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, had made sure to have cots available for the developers taking part in the hospital's first hackathon in March.

Few of those cots were used, however — most of the teams that spent the night at the hospital during the two-day event spent the night working. "I wasn't expecting all-nighters," she says, though the teams' focus and dedication to their projects was clear in the final Sunday presentations. "After just 36 hours they had such robust and thought-through prototypes," says Ms. Kotchoubey. "It was amazing."

While there are competing theories as to which organization hosted the first hackathon, the idea of gathering developers and programmers in one room to solve a problem emerged around 1999. Hackathons grew in popularity as these organizations, mostly tech companies, realized what Ms. Kotchoubey did — that gathering talented people in one room and giving them both an objective and a time crunch can produce impressive results.

NYP decided to host a hackathon based on the successes of such events at Facebook and other famously innovative tech companies. "Our CIO, Aurelia Boyer, had been asking our IT department to introduce new technologies to solve persistent challenges in healthcare," says Ms. Kotchoubey. "We were watching other industries and the hackathon model appealed to us because it brought in new skill sets to solve these challenges."

For its first hackathon, NYP decided to focus on improving the hospital's patient engagement technology. A patient portal had been implemented in 2009, but the hospital thought more could be done to better connect patients to their own care. Also, NYP's IT team figured consumer-facing technology would resonate the most with the non-healthcare developers.  

NYP then posted the hackathon on EventBrite and reached out to the local tech community, receiving "an overwhelming response" in return, says Ms. Kotchoubey. The hospital posted the challenge and some de-identified data sets closer to the start of the hackathon so when the participants gathered that Saturday morning, many had ideas and some had already formed teams. A total of 17 teams competed in the 36-hour event for up to $50,000 in seed money and the chance to see their product incorporated at NYP.

The winning app was PresbyHangouts, a mobile videoconferencing platform designed to allow inpatients to connect with their providers or make friends with other patients based on similar conditions or shared interests. The app fills a definite need at NYP — Ms. Kotchoubey just recently met with patients in isolation that had asked for ways to be social despite their quarantines. However, it's not just the winning technology NYP is considering implementing. "[The products] exceeded our expectations… We've met with a number of the teams [since the hackathon] and aspects of many will be incorporated," says Ms. Kotchoubey, and the hospital has plans to host another hackathon in the near future.

NYP is not the only, nor the first, hospital to see success from a hackathon. Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston hosted its first hackathon last year after hearing success stories from staffers that had attended such tech-industry events in the past, says Lesley Solomon, executive director of the Brigham Innovation Hub. "Our main thinking was there's a lot of opportunity for innovation when you bring potential collaborators together," she says. "A single clinician or scientist alone won't necessarily drive innovation, it's got to be a collaboration…and a hackathon gave us the opportunity to bring those people together."

The hackathon had the double purpose of promoting the brand-new Innovation Hub, a center dedicated to bringing innovative ideas to fruition and possibly market. "We had launched the iHub to support people with ideas, solutions, things they wanted to move toward a commercial effort…so we also saw [the hackathon] as an opportunity to create a little more recognition of the support and resources the iHub can provide," says Ms. Solomon.

The hospital partnered with H@cking Medicine, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, and did outreach on campus and scheduled the event for the beginning of the school year to help attract MIT students. The efforts worked —more than 120 participants turned out for the hackathon.

The Brigham and Women's hackathon started on a Friday evening with a networking session. Saturday morning a panel of judges heard more than 50 pitches from participants. Unlike the NYP event, there wasn't a specific theme or challenge to Brigham and Women's hackathon beyond finding a way to make healthcare better. The initial pitches more identified a problem or pain point than offered a concrete solution, and another networking opportunity then gave participants with similar focuses the opportunity to join forces to develop a solution before the Sunday deadline of 2:00 p.m.

Brigham and Women's awarded several teams prizes for their work at the hackathon, including the developers of an app that sends dictated text from a smartphone to a computer and a program that helps physicians prioritize clinical reports.

However, Ms. Solomon says one of the best outcomes from the hackathon was the energy created and the connections formed with local developers and innovative thinkers. "A lot of people wanted to hear more about the Innovation Hub, and there was a lot of energy created around healthcare innovation in general," she says. "And the people who came are now connected to our organization and they know who to reach out to [with a new idea] — it helped us to build that network."

Brigham and Women's will host another hackathon Sept. 12, keeping the same unstructured, free format to allow as much innovation as possible.

"This kind of collaboration really unleashes [the participants'] potential to disrupt traditional medicine and reinvent healthcare," says Ms. Solomon. "It's a way to get ideas out sooner, moving forward faster and impact[ing] patient care faster, better and smarter."

More articles on hackathons:

athenahealth - 150 Great Places to Work in Healthcare | 2014
3 Hospitals That Have Hosted Hackathons
NewYork-Presbyterian Selects Winners of Patient Engagement Solutions Contest


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