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Help Solve Health Care’s Biggest Problems by Hacking Medicine

by Priya Garg, Co-director of MIT Hacking Medicine

If you didn’t know what a health care hackathon was a few years back, chances are you do now. The number of health care hackathons — events in which great minds help solve health care’s biggest problems — is growing rapidly, from just three in 2010 to 59 in 2014. With that rapid growth, the media is taking notice, with recent coverage in the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

This speedy increase in health care hackathons — bringing together stakeholders from engineering, design, medicine, science, business and entrepreneurship — could very well be the result of the success stories that have emerged from these two-day events. For example, PillPack, designed to tackle the problem of medication adherence, originated at an October 2012 hackathon. The company is now serving patients in 40 states, and recently made news for raising $8.75 million. PillPack improves the pharmacy experience by filling, sorting and delivering medications straight to the patient’s home in personalized, easy-to-use packets.

A more recent success story illustrates what’s possible in just a few months if you get the opportunity to capitalize on hackathon momentum. Seven MIT engineering students partnered with two clinicians at the March 2014 Grand H@ckfest to create BreathEasy, a device that combats mucous blockages in tracheostomy tubes. In the months after their first place win, they have already progressed to having a full-functioning, stand-alone beta product that has been demonstrated and calibrated on actual human subjects. They’ve even traveled to India to receive feedback from target users.

But health care hackathons produce more than innovative ideas and products. Take Sahil Mehta’s story. Mehta, CTO and Co-founder of Lattice Innovations, attended the CAMTech Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) hackathon in Vellore, India and met Soura Bhattacharyya – within a couple hours, Bhattacharyya offered Mehta a job at Glocal Healthcare, a company delivering care in underserved areas of India.

“Hackathons provide a very raw and physical platform for diverse minds to come together and share ideas and knowledge," says Mehta. “Some of the best professional engagements I have made have been through hackathons. It's the people you see willingly participating in these events that makes you believe that community innovation is the way of the future.”

For many of us, the phrase “innovation within the health care industry” conjures up an image of behemoth institutions with regimented top-down bureaucracy and slow-moving progress — but it doesn’t have to be that way! Hackathons show us that in just two days, you can produce results. In less than 48 hours, innovative minds can source needs, validate them, identify assumptions, ideate, pivot many times, and work together on a diverse team to reach a common goal. At the end of it, participants may have further defined their career path, made new friends — and maybe even found a new job.

Want to jump in? MIT Hacking Medicine is partnering with athenahealth for the 3rd Annual More Disruption Please (MDP) Hackathon, November 15-16 at the athenahealth Watertown, MA headquarters. athenahealth’s MDP program brings together like-minded individuals who want to change the status quo in health care. Check out this short video clip from the 2013 More Disruption Please Hackathon.



This year’s MDP hackathon will focus on disrupting health care across the care continuum. With access to athenahealth’s APIs, participants will have the means to produce powerful solutions for health care providers and/or patients. So what are you waiting for? Apply to the hackathon now!

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