Sharing Brain Power: The Hackathon Way


There is no denying the advent of technology in health care in the last couple of centuries.

Since the invention of the stethoscope in 1816, which allowed physicians to hear abnormalities in the chest, to the now wide-use of high tech machines to generate images of the inside of the body (e.g. MRI, X-ray, CT scan) or to perform specialty procedures (e.g. cardiac bypass operations), health-care providers today rely on medical technology more than ever to detect and treat disease and illness.

Nonetheless, there is also a growing recognition of the need to move away from the pre-digital world of paper, fax machines and traditional mail to further maximize the benefits of technology in health care.

Hacking Health goes east

Hacking Health aims to bridge some of these challenges.

A global movement that started in Montreal four years ago, Hacking Health is all about accelerating the adoption of technology in health care, and improving health care by inviting technology creators and health-care professionals to collaborate on realistic solutions to front-line problems.

The first Hacking Health “hackathon” in our province, hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI,) took place a few weeks ago in St. John’s at Memorial University’s Bruneau Centre for Research and Innovation.

Scene from the 1st Hacking Health St. John’s Hackthon, Memorial University, April 28-30, 2017. Courtesy of Hacking Health. Source: https://twitter.com/HHStJohnsNL/status/858722537198505984

The event brought together a group of talented individuals from a wide range of backgrounds – professors, physicians and other health-care employees, entrepreneurs, programmers, designers, students, executives, volunteers, engineers, marketers and many more – all eager to share their ideas and expertise.

And, as the largest health authority in Newfoundland and Labrador, we were excited to participate and be part of this movement!

David Diamond, President and CEO of Eastern Health at the Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon

“We’re very interested in innovation, and to push the envelope of technology in health care,” said David Diamond, President and CEO of Eastern Health when he spoke at the hackathon.

“Eastern Health has already adopted technology in a number of initiatives. For example, we are a leader in telehealth – that is the use of videoconferencing technology to connect patients with health-care providers.

We’re also piloting ‘Remote Patient Monitoring,’ a free at-home device that allows health providers to monitor, coach and support patients suffering from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,) heart failure and diabetes from as far away as Black Tickle, NL.

And, for our francophone health partners, clinicians and IT professionals in St. Pierre et Miquelon are partnering with Eastern Health to develop and implement software applications for real-time French and English automated translation.”

But there are many more opportunities with technology to enhance the quality of health-care delivery.

The ‘hackathon way’

So, how does it work? On Friday evening, at the onset of this weekend-long event, several individuals pitch their ideas to attendees on how to improve health care. After a ‘mingling’ session, each attendee selects one of these ideas, and on Saturday, they team up to work on a prototype which they present to the group on Sunday afternoon. A Hacking Health judging panel then chooses a winner. That’s the hackathon way.

Scene from the St. John’s Hackathon, Hacking Health on April 28, 2017 in St. John’s, NL

For example, one participant was looking for an app, or other web-based solution, to help people find family physicians more easy and more efficiently; another was looking for an IT solution to help the refugee community better manage their medical specialist appointments; someone else was looking to use blockchain to create a working concept to make health insurance more affordable around the world.

One participant pitched an idea to use metadata (data about data) from Eastern Health’s blood collections clinics to decrease wait times for this service. Presumably, metadata is already widely collected and stored, but is often overlooked.

Several attendees formed the Meta Clinic team to explore this idea. They developed a prototype of a web-based app to inform the public of the busiest times at some blood clinics to encourage people to drop in during less busy times. Although there are considerations before a tool like this can be implemented in real life, this was a simple, yet powerful way to demonstrate the vast range of opportunities afforded by putting metadata to work.

Eastern Health staff pitched ideas too. Gerard Gibbons, manager with Decision Support, and Dana Higdon, materials manager with Purchasing, were looking for a web-based framework to evaluate vendor goods and services – evaluations based not on cost – but on outcomes.

“Value Healthcare Industries” VHI Team presents their prototype at the 1st Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon

And Ron Johnson, VP responsible for information services and rural health, and Dr. Sean Connors, clinical chief for cardiac care, also with Eastern Health, pitched in with their idea for a province-wide, automated web-based app to improve upon the current way in which patients requiring cardiac catheterization lab work are prioritized. With that, the MyCCath Team was formed to work on a possible solution on a go forward basis.

Hackathon St. John’s, MyCCath Team. Missing from photo: Ron Johnson, VP, Eastern Health

A valuable aspect of the MyCCath team’s emerging prototype, besides their envisioned real-time capabilities, was the added automated patient notification system that would keep patients in the loop should their status change during the prioritization process.

(left) Ron Johnson, vice president for Information Services and (right) Dr. Sean Connors clinical chief for cardiac care with Eastern Health, present MyCCath’s weekend-long prototype for cardiac catheterization.

Sharing brain-power

On Sunday afternoon, merely 24 hours later, it was astounding to see the results of the teams’ work.

Eastern Health employees participate at Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon

Hacking Health was a perfect platform for connecting people, and focusing diverse skills on the same goal. This sharing of brain-power is central for fostering innovation.

In this province, we are a relatively small, aging population spread over a vast and rugged geographical area. But our health-care challenges are not small. We have the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the country, which affects our health and the health-care system. And more and more, technology is ‘plugged in’ to the solutions.

More than anything, this weekend demonstrated there’s ample opportunity to apply technology to the business of health care much more rapidly – to break previous ways of thinking with the goal to make health care more efficient, accessible, and timely – and ultimately, to contribute to better health outcomes.

By all accounts, the first hackathon hit the ground running, and it provided a fertile ground in which many of these ideas can continue to grow. Kudos to NATI for organizing this event, and for its continued commitment to the advancement of technology in our province.

Last but not least, congratulations to the two team winners of the 1st Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon PatientMe and Meta Clinic, as well as the people-choice award, MyCCath team! We look forward to seeing the evolution of these and all other emerging applications in good use. 

Teams ‘Patient Me’ and ‘Meta Clinic,’ co-winners of the 1st Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon, April 28-30, 2017

Teams ‘Patient Me’ and ‘Meta Clinic,’ co-winners of the 1st Hacking Health St. John’s Hackathon, April 28-30, 2017

This story was written by Melisa Valverde, digital communications manager with Eastern Health.

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