This past November I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the Hacking Health hackathon right here in Toronto. The event brings together healthcare professionals and technology developers to collaborate and build solutions to existing health care problems.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a hackathon (sometimes called hackfests), it is a event where people get together and code to create some kind of software in limited amount of time (usually a couple days). Sometimes these are to solve a specific problem, sometimes they are just to start-up new projects and new ideas, more recently they have become almost competitions to develop a product to pitch to venture capitalists. Hacking Health differs from traditional hackathons in that the majority of attendees do not know how to code (designers, markerting pros, health care professionals). Instead they offer other important insight and play different roles in the project development. A vital factor when the goal of Hacking Health is to solve problems faced by front line health care workers.
42 people pitched ideas for projects that could benefit the health care landscape. Some projects were hardware based wearable devices, others were software solutions, some were patient centric while others provider focused, from mobile apps to machine learning programming endoscopes there was something for everyone. Ultimately only 24 of the 42 pitched projects were able to form teams for the weekend hackathon.
When I initially registered for the event I wasn’t sure if I was going to pitch an idea as a health care professional or join a team as a developer. As the date drew closer and I realized I had my plate already full of side tech projects (this site for example), I finally decided I would just sit back and listen to the pitches to find a project to join. After a long night of talking to people about their projects, their goals and ideas I narrowed it down to 3 projects that interested me.
The first was the “My Baby and Me Passport” idea from two social workers at St. Michael’s Hospital, which was a mobile app version of their existing print passport for expecting mothers to track their pregnancy experience, remind them of appointments, let them learn how their baby is growing, access relevant health information to keep them safe and more. I was attracted to the project because the group targeted a lower socio-economic user base as most of their soon to be mothers were homeless. They weren’t looking to make a profit off their App, just looking to help people, and I really liked that. The other thing that I liked about the project was that it was a realistic goal to complete the App in the roughly 16-18 hours we had to code. I quickly realized many people felt the same way and by the time I spoke the group leaders they already had 3-4 programmers and I believe at least 2 designers, although the very friendly leaders said I could come aboard anyway I felt I could help another team lacking developers more.
The second was a teen focused cancer App pitched by a software group connected to Princess Margret Hospital. I loved the idea of youth social cancer app, it played into my cancer background and they planned on using some of my favourite and more comfortable programming languages. I still think this was a great project and would have joined it had I not discovered…
The third project from CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). They wanted to develop a Patient Pathway for their entire health care team (Physicians, Nurses, Pharmacists) and patients to interact with and monitor the progress as they traveled down the health care plan. After a convincing speech by the team leader I had decided to join the group. There was one other programmer on the team, two group leaders, and 3 others responsible for visualizing the design flow of how the App would work and how the users would interact with it.
After a weekend of straight coding, eyes burning with lack of sleep, and enough coffee coursing through our viens to wake Rip Van Winkle we finally had a working product. Coded in Ruby and patched together with java-script hacks and CSS tricks myself and Chris Woodford had a piece of art, software to better healthcare, and more importantly something to demonstrate to the panel of judges.
Although we didn’t win overall it was great experience and I would love to do it again. I think this is great thing for health care. Not only because it allows us to tackle many problems all at once, but also because it bypasses many stages of bureaucracy that would be needed to develop these technological tools in house. That said, these projects that would be initially hindered might benefit from that same bureaucracy in the long run in keeping the project alive and updated (and funded).