Bringing everyone to the table: Hackathon brings a clinician’s dietary innovation to life

Finding meals a whole family can eat—including kids with food allergies—can be like solving a Rubik’s cube.
Finding meals a whole family can eat—including kids with food allergies—can be like solving a Rubik’s cube.
Elizabeth Hait, MD, MPH, wears many hats. She’s a physician, researcher, wife and mother just to name a few.

But she never fancied herself an innovator—until recently. After participating in Hacking Pediatrics, sponsored by Boston Children’s Hospital in collaboration with MIT’s H@cking Medicine, she now sees potential innovations and innovators everywhere.

“To be an innovator, you don’t need to be extraordinary, you just need to recognize that a problem exists and be dedicated to fixing it,” she says.

The problem she took to last month’s Hacking Pediatrics Hackathon stems directly from her work. As co-medical director at Boston Children’s Eosinophilic Gastrointestinal Disease (EGID) Program, which treats specific food allergies causing gastrointestinal inflammation, she sees families constantly struggling to find new (and healthy) meals that won’t trigger an allergic reaction in their kids.

“Many of our patients can only safely eat a handful of foods, so feeding them with any kind of variety is extremely hard,” she says. “Then if you factor in the likes, dislikes and other food intolerances that often exist in a family, just planning one family meal can feel like a nightmare.”

For years, Hait and Tara McCarthy, MS, RD, LDN, clinical nutritionist in the EGID Program, have been compiling and handing out hard copies of special recipes to families in their clinical practice. But they found that these dishes become too routine too quickly. The Internet provides more variety, but neither McCarthy nor Hait are particularly impressed with what’s available online.

Hait
Hait
“Most of the sites we saw for people with EGIDs and other dietary restrictions were a mixed bag,” Hait says. “Some were easy to use but the recipes offered weren’t healthy enough, while others had good recipes but awful search options. There wasn’t a single online destination we felt comfortable sharing with patients.”

McCarthy and Hait wanted to build their own customized recipe website for people with medically restricted diets, but neither knew where to start. “We’re health care workers, not web developers,” Hait says. So their dream sat idle for years. When Hait heard about Hacking Pediatrics from co-organizer and colleague Michael Docktor, MD, she revived the idea with a new sense of purpose.

Hacking menu planning

On Saturday, Oct. 19, both Hait and McCarthy were given one minute to pitch their customizable website idea to a crowd of 150 hackathon attendees. Impressed with their presentation, a group of tech and business savvy people agreed to join Hait and McCarthy’s team. The nine-member group’s 30-hour brainstorming session went late into the night.

“We sat in a room and hacked away at the problem: what exactly would help these families and how we could help them get it,” she says. “We discussed their needs, the limitations of the available technology and, through collaboration, really expanded on the original idea.”

The end result of the brainstorm was RightByte, a web-based and mobile tool that would host thousands of recipes for people with various food allergies—all vetted for safety and nutritional content. It would allow customization for each family member’s dietary needs and preferences, pointing parents to recipes suitable for all.

With their idea finalized, the team began designing the site. The next day, McCarthy gave a three-minute presentation on RightByte before the entire hackathon crowd. Both the crowd and judges were impressed, and later that afternoon McCarthy and Hait were awarded with the Hacking Pediatrics Grand Prize of $3,000 plus almost $4,000 in Amazon web services to help create content in the cloud, a faster and cheaper alternative to current options.

Thanks to the fast, collaborative nature of the hackathon, RightByte went from intangible dream to work in progress in under 48 hours. Hait and McCarthy are currently working with mentors at Boston Children’s to bring RightByte closer to production.

“We had this idea for so long, but didn’t bring it up with others, because we didn’t know how to get it off the ground,” Hait says. “There’s still much work to be done, but now that we are working with the Technology & Innovation Development Office, I’m amazed at how easy it’s been. This idea is finally taking shape and it could eventually transform how kids with food allergies are treated.”