The age of the hackathon


Hackathons have become increasingly popular in the health care industry as a way for clinicians, scientists and programmers to come together and collaborate on projects that will improve patient care.

For one weekend last fall, more than 120 clinicians, scientists and programmers from BWH and other organizations came together for BWH’s inaugural hackathon sponsored by the Brigham Innovation Hub (Brigham iHub) where they were able to collaborate on projects ultimately poised to improve care delivery. Over the course of three days, teams gained inspiration, networked with others with similar interests, and started 17 novel projects.

“Hackathons allow us to create new and innovative solutions, by combining our experience with the people who can actually help to solve these problems.”                                                                – Usha Periyanayagam, MD, MPH, MS

Today, hackathons, which first became popular in the technology industry, have taken on new meaning in the world of health care. Around the country, health care institutions are using hackathons as a way to tackle some of their most challenging and important issues—or pain points—such as critical test result review, end-of-life decision-making and fall prevention.

“As the United States health care system moves from a fee-for-service to value-based reimbursement system and seeks to deliver higher quality care more efficiently, there is an increased need and opportunity for innovation,” said Adam Landman, MD, BWH chief medical information officer for health information, innovation and integration, who participated in BWH’s hackathon last fall.

“Hackathons are one way to accelerate health care innovation by bringing together an interdisciplinary group of engineers, entrepreneurs, clinicians, scientists and designers for focused efforts to solve specific health care challenges or pain points,” he said.

Usha Periyanayagam, MD, MPH, MS, BWH Emergency Medicine, has participated in panels around the country to discuss Boston’s booming biotech scene. She said hackathons are great because they allow like-minded people to come together to solve problems that will make the health care system better for the next generation.

“There are a lot of different people and players in health care today. Physicians are acutely aware of the different interests these groups have and the pain points created. Hackathons allow us to create new and innovative solutions, by combining our experience with the people who can actually help to solve these problems,” she said.

Let the Hacking Begin

Looking forward to the 2014 BWH Hackathon, being held in collaboration with iHub and MIT Hacking Medicine from Sept.12-14 in Cabot Atrium, Lesley Solomon, executive director, Brigham iHub, said she’s excited to see the incredible projects and ideas that will blossom from this year’s hackathon.

“A single clinician or scientist in his or her lab or clinic isn’t going to drive innovation alone,” said Solomon. “It’s going to be that person partnering with an engineer, entrepreneur or someone who has the technical skills to take what’s in their mind and help build or develop it beyond that idea.”

Since last fall’s hackathon, a majority of teams are still working on their innovations. Three teams have been accepted at health care accelerators and the Brigham iHub continues to work closely with some of the teams seeking to support their continued development and eventually implement the most promising of these projects at BWH.

Rajat Gupta, MD, a BWH Cardiovascular Medicine fellow, and his team, Ring Leader, were awarded the Brigham iHub prize at last year’s hackathon for developing a device that changes the way a standard exercise stress test is conducted. Since last year’s hackathon, Gupta and his team have tinkered with prototypes and redirected their mission a few times.

He said participating in the hackathon motivated his team and made it possible to meet people with expertise in fields such as engineering, business plan development and patent law. Gupta added that the mentorship of the Brigham iHub has been invaluable in continuing the excitement after the 2013 hackathon.

“Hackathons bring people with different perspectives and expertise together in a very collaborative forum,” said Gupta. “The goal is to ignite creativity and encourage continued discussions.”

Landman said he personally made connections during last year’s hackathon that led to new projects and collaborations. One example is a recently published commentary in The Journal of the American Medical Association he wrote with Adam Powell, PhD, president of Payer+Provider Syndicate, and David Bates, MD, chief quality officer at BWH, on the need for tools and resources to help health care providers and patients identify which of the large number of mobile applications for health care are safe and effective.

This year’s hackathon will kick off with a reception and internal networking session for clinicians at 3 p.m. on Sept. 12. Solomon said the goal of this year’s event is to really engage the entire Brigham community and encourage people to come and talk about challenges they feel need to be addressed in the delivery of care at BWH and beyond.

The only pre-requisites for the BWH Hackathon are a passion for improving health care and commitment to participate in the event, Landman said. “I encourage all BWH employees to join this year’s event and share the health care challenges that frustrate them the most.”