How the hacking culture is changing the face of healthcare

Hacking Health is a half-day panel at SXSW

Hacking groups have been around as long as technology. The word hacking might bring up thoughts of those nefarious characters trying to steal your personal information, but that’s just one slice of the hacking pie.

Hacking groups are mostly the disruptors of the tech world – figuring out how to make things better through trial, error and collaboration – and it’s not just for the Silicon Valley geeks of the world. Those looking to develop ideas and products are benefiting from these groups.

A half-day session at SXSW called 'Hacking Health' will consist of three panels led by agency partners and co-presenters from MIT, Dell Medical, creative healthcare advertising agency Juice Pharma and others, covering how hacking culture is influencing the future of healthcare, healthcare hackathon success stories and how upstarts can deliver the perfect pitch to get their ideas heard and products sold.

Judy Wang is an MIT hacking expert and a co-founder of MIT Hacking Medicine. Her start in hacking came from work she did out of a desire she and co-workers had to bring people together to start thinking about healthcare in a new way. They brought 100 people together from different skill sets and made a conference out of it.

“It was a weekend-long thing and we were like, ‘We'll put them all in a room, have them solve problems and see what happens.’ That was essentially our first hackathon. We really didn't know if that was going to work or not. Since then, we at MIT Hacking Medicine have done about 90 events across 12 countries and nine US states. And I think it's been really interesting seeing the movement grow. I know there are other groups around the world that are also trying to replicate this model with varying degrees of success,” said Wang.

She thinks the reason they’ve been so successful is the curation of the participants and putting an emphasis on getting equal representation of the skill sets involved, whether they’re designers, engineers, clinical professionals or business people. That can create interesting collisions between people to come up with innovative ideas.

“We really force them to think about all of the different angles of their idea so that at the end when they're presenting, they actually have a viable, potentially really interesting business model. We put a really big emphasis on that,” she said. “It's, ‘Okay, what is the problem you're really trying to solve and how are you going to monetize it or make it a sustainable innovation?’"

Wang said that the students, community members and professionals taking part do so on a volunteer basis, because they are passionate about it, and the exposure and experience they get from the sessions. She has seen alumni of the hackathons go on to become leaders at the federal level, and she and her colleagues have had successes not just on the medical front, but also with policy, technology and even education.

Last year’s MIT Hacking Medicine panel at SXSW was a three-day hackathon, whereas this year’s panel will condense the learning into just a half day, talking about successes, failures, and the third element of pitching disruptive health startups.

To that end, Wang developed a Hacking Pediatrics with the Boston Children’s Hospital, and it showed those professionals that they could be empowered to help make change for the better, rather than the traditional top-down approach.

“Just having them come to our programming changed the way that they think about how to approach these problems in terms of, ‘I can really break down a problem, really understand what it is I'm trying to solve and then figure out an innovative way or an entrepreneurial way to solve it without having to rely on top level leadership to tell me that this is going to change’,” said Wang.

She brought up an example of a dietician and pediatric GI doctor coming together at Hacking Pediatrics to help deal with children with severe food issues. They teamed up with an entrepreneur, designer and developer to create a platform that would help filter different recipes for families using a web portal to make it easy. They developed a sustainable business from the hackathon.

“One of our mottos here at Hacking Medicine is we like to say, ‘Break it down, build it up, make it better.’”

Wang admits that enacting change in healthcare can be difficult, sometimes it’s incremental in its change, which is better than no change at all.

“In our programming, we help them break down to the core of what exactly their pain point is and then that's when you start building a solution…because sometimes it doesn't need to be a technology solution. Sometimes it's just changing something incrementally in the process or redesigning a process – maybe it's a hardware solution. So that's what we mean by building it up and eventually hoping to make it better for patients or families or whoever your core stakeholder is,” she said.

Wang calls the solutions they come up with at the hackathons as “value-based innovation”. It’s about building things people want and need, because if they don’t then they’re not going to pay for them.

Regulation is another issue that weighs on health hackathons, because the regulatory environment dictates a lot of what people can do in the space. So, in the programming of these hackathons, they like to have a lot of mentors flow in and out of the program to help teams think about those questions, stated Wang.

Some success stories from the hackathons include a platform that provides patient education materials, a pill pack from two of the co-founders of Hacking Medicine that prevents negative drug interactions, and an app that helps recovering addicts rebuild their social networks so they don’t start using again, leverages artificial intelligence techniques to help them avoid the areas in which they used to use.

Wang and her colleagues are excited to be coming back to SXSW for this latest panel.

“One of the things we're trying to think about is like how to really curate information that can be valuable for patients and providers in looking at these technologies. I'm really excited to be on a panel with Troy Bannister (from StartUp Health) who's running a program that is trying to help these early stage companies grow and have an impact in healthcare,” said Wang.

“From the agency point of view, all of our clients are pharmaceutical or biotech clients, we're under increased pressure, rightly so, to collaborate and to find real impactful innovations for patients, caregivers, physicians,” said Juice Pharma Agency EVP, digital innovation officer Robert Palmer, who is moderating the panel.

“How do you identify a good idea from a bad idea? That's really key for a lot of people in the agency world now and a lot of pharmaceutical brand marketers. They're just overwhelmed by the number of startups, innovations, ideas, and we're hoping that these three panels can help sort that out a little bit or at least develop some guidelines.”

The Hacking Health half day session takes place starting at 9:30am Saturday, March 11 at the Austin Convention Center.

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger

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