• 48 Hours to Find a Healthcare Fix

    By Laura Ramos Hegwer Nov 13, 2017

    An annual healthcare hackathon at Mount Sinai Health System offers young technology entrepreneurs, computer scientists and engineers, medical and allied healthcare professionals, and trainees a forum to seek innovative solutions that improve care.

    Hackathon_Group 1

    Recognizing that many of the best ideas have begun as “back of the napkin” concepts drafted on the fly, the Icahn School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at New York City-based Mount Sinai Health System host an annual “Health Hackathon” to foster creative, collaborative problem-solving.

    In October, more than 90 healthcare professionals, engineers, and software developers teamed up with trainees from academic institutions from across the country during a 48-hour health hackathon to explore ideas and develop prototype solutions for improving patient care. It was the second such event at Mount Sinai.

    Promoting an Innovative Brand

    Leaders at Mount Sinai say they developed their health hackathon to cultivate an ecosystem that fosters multi- and transdisciplinary team-based health tech innovation and entrepreneurship. Along with fostering a culture of innovation, the organization seeks to generate new technologies in the hope that some may have commercial potential, says Scott Friedman, MD, dean for therapeutic discovery and chief of liver diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

    Mount Sinai differentiates itself from some other organizations that host healthcare hackathons by offering participants a real-life, front-line connection to the challenges of managing patients within an academic healthcare setting.

    Hackathon_Scott Friedman“As an academic medical center hosting a health hackathon, we engage not only technology-oriented people like software engineers and device developers, but also the entire medical community,” Friedman (pictured at right) says. “We believe we offer a 360-degree view of problems, so they are laid out more clearly and not abstractly.”

    Focusing on Cancer

    This year’s Health Hackathon theme was cancer, which posed countless opportunities for problem-solving, says Ramon Parsons, MD, PhD, director of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai. “Software tools and devices that would help with patient navigation, disease monitoring, or even securing electronic consent for research studies would be extremely helpful and benefit patients,” he says.

    Organizers sparked ideas by sharing videos from cancer patients, clinicians, and researchers on opportunities for technology to improve cancer care. The videos deliberately reflected a broad range of issues that affect both patients and providers, to stimulate conversation, ideation, and creative solutions to a range of problems in cancer, says Janice Gabrilove, MD, professor of medicine and oncological sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine.

    Hackathon_Janice Gabrilove“The essence of a health hackathon is really about creating cross-talk among disciplines,” she says. “In this day and age, the big problems in medicine and healthcare delivery require partnerships among a broad range of disciplines—basic science, clinical science, engineering, computer science, business, and finance,” Gabrilove (pictured at right) says.

    Prior to the hackathon, participants used a shared online bulletin board to network and form teams based on problems that interested them. Using the board, teams could recruit teammates who would bring the skills needed to develop a particular idea.

    Other participants waited until the event to join teams, each of which included up to 10 participants. The teams then developed prototypes or mockups of potential apps or devices. On the final morning, each team gave a three-minute slide presentation along with a demonstration of their solution to a panel of judges.

    Prior to their final pitch, the teams sought advice from a range of advisers and practiced before a panel of mock judges who provided feedback. Experts from Mount Sinai’s Innovation Partners office, which facilitates the commercialization of new technologies, participated in the final judging panel, along with advisers from Mount Sinai’s Rapid Prototyping Center and the Sinai App Lab, which also served as co-organizers of the event. 

    Judges selected the following winning ideas this year:

    • HelpingStand, a portable device to assist fatigued or debilitated patients with getting up from the seated position in an automobile
    • Ontrack, an app to help pediatric cancer patients maintain social and school-based interactions so they can facilitate more seamless reentry to school after a long absence
    • Streamline, a tool that uses artificial intelligence to speed the clinical-trial protocol development process

    Event organizers plan to invite this year’s winners back to Mount Sinai in February to pitch their solutions to a panel of venture capitalists. 

    Lessons Learned

    Leaders from Mount Sinai offer the following advice to other organizations interested in hosting a healthcare hackathon.

    Welcome all clinicians—even those without tech experience. “A clinical practitioner, such as a nurse, social worker, or physician, may feel like they know nothing about technology because they are not an engineer or a coder,” Gabrilove says. “Yet they have the clinical insights that can inform engineers and coders, and it is the partnering between those groups that leads to new prototypes and ideas.”

    Don’t ignore the logistics. Details matter: In addition to securing space, food, and housing to host the event, organizers needed to create a separate and secure Wi-Fi network for participants.

    Organizers recommend using the free Health Hackathon Handbook from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a hackathon pioneer, to help plan the event.

    Offer open registration. To get participation from a broad mix of faculty, students, researchers, staff members, and industry professionals, Mount Sinai does not restrict who can sign up for the Health Hackathon. However, some organizations may want candidates to apply so they can ensure a specific mix of participants.

    This year, Mount Sinai proactively invited engineers, computer scientists, and other aspiring entrepreneurs with technical backgrounds. “We wanted to diversify each team with a range of experiences and give everyone an opportunity to add some expertise on their team to develop a real solution over the course of a weekend,” says Peter Backeris, a bioengineer at the Icahn School of Medicine and Health Hackathon program organizer. “The goal is to help people in the scientific and clinical community understand each other and how they work.”

    Create a participation agreement. This should detail participant eligibility, the contest’s judging criteria, and information on intellectual property (IP) guidelines. In their agreement, Mount Sinai does not assert any IP rights to hackathon ideas unless the participants continue to use the health system’s resources after the event. 

    Find commercial partners. Backeris recommends signing three or four corporate sponsors to provide expertise on-site and help fund the event.

    Determine whether the event will allow teams to bring technology they have already developed. If organizers allow this option, they should make sure that such technology is disclosed in advance to ensure fairness. 

    Make sure judging criteria are clear. Inconsistencies in how judges perceive criteria can create wide variation in scoring. Watching and scoring videotaped pitches from previous events—and then discussing the results—can help promote more consistency among judges, Backeris says.

    Stay in touch with teams. Gabrilove says previous winning teams can serve as ambassadors for future healthcare hackathon events, helping to attract business contacts and enhancing networking opportunities.

    Thinking Beyond a Single Weekend

    Although healthcare hackathons may seem outside the day-to-day mission of providing patient care, such events align with the core vision and values of many academic medical centers, which aim to foster innovation in education and patient care.

    “Academic leaders should take the long view and recognize that supporting a health hackathon is an investment in creating a culture that supports innovation,” Friedman says. “The long-term payoff will be in attracting talented and creative thinkers who have unique skill sets that will enhance the success of the organization.”


    Laura Ramos Hegwer is a freelance writer and editor based in Lake Bluff, Ill..

    Interviewed for this article: Peter Backeris, bioengineer, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City; Scott Friedman, MD, dean for therapeutic discovery and chief of liver diseases, Icahn School of Medicine; Janice Gabrilove, MD, professor of oncological sciences, Icahn School of Medicine; Ramon Parsons, MD, PhD, director, Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai. 

    Contact: www.newsmedia@mssm.edu

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