Hacking pediatrics: Improving the patient experience

by Michael Docktor on September 10, 2013

kids hacking-shutterstock_58262788Michael Docktor, MD, is director of Clinical Mobile Solutions at Boston Children’s Hospital and a pediatric gastroenterologist with a research and clinical interest in inflammatory bowel disease.

How do the most disruptive companies of our day like Facebook and Pinterest get started? In the warm glow of Silicon Valley, in the shadows of technology titans such as Apple and Google, bright, enthusiastic young entrepreneurs, programmers and designers get together to “hack” ideas for the next big thing. The concept is simple and has worked in tackling challenges from creating the next great social network to developing an innovative green-energy technology.

However, applying this model of collaborative, rapid problem-solving to pain points in health care is still a relatively novel concept. Hacking Medicine, a community of passionate “hackers” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has brought this practice to medicine and successfully organized events from Uganda to Boston. Graduates of one recent event with AthenaHealth—which develops and sells cloud-based services for electronic health records, practice management and care coordination—are on their way to developing successful businesses, including PillPack (helping patients manage their medications), the BeTH Project (inexpensive adjustable prostheses) and Podimetrics (a data-transmitting shoe insole for diabetics).

At Boston Children’s Hospital, a core group of clinicians and innovators has joined forces with the Hacking Medicine team to bring this exciting, potentially transformative opportunity to pediatrics. Through Hacking Pediatrics (October 18-20), we want to meet the needs of pediatric patients who face an unsolved problem, parents facing seemingly insurmountable hurdles in caring for their child and clinicians with an “aha” moment.

Hacking Pediatrics logoColeman Shelton, MIT entrepreneur and Hacking Medicine co-leader, defines our mission best: “Imagine you’re about to step into a room with a hundred of the brightest minds in medicine, engineering, business and design. What if they all turned to you and said, ‘How can we make your life and the lives of your family better . . . today?’”

We look forward to engaging the Boston Children’s community in crowd-sourcing ideas from our hundreds of thousands of patients and families through a broad Facebook campaign. By listening to our patients, families and clinicians about the biggest issues in pediatrics and providing the expertise to “hack” a solution, we can develop apps, devices and software solutions that break down barriers and keep children and families healthy, happy and safe.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a large academic institution, we grappled with several challenges in planning for an open and successful hackathon. For example, patent attorney Alan Steele, MD, PhD, at Harvard points out that the issue of intellectual property (IP) is commonly ignored at hackathons, a choice that is occasionally regretted. In an effort to create rather than stifle opportunity, we worked with Erik Halvorsen, PhD, executive director of the Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) at Boston Children’s, to better understand and address the IP issue.



Fortunately, for the event itself, we have chosen to avoid onerous contracts and founders agreements that have killed many a hackathon. Rather, we hope to provide an open framework, with support from members of TIDO at the event to advise attendees of IP issues that may impact participants from Boston Children’s and other institutions. Essentially, we want people to collaborate and dream without barriers, but also to be cognizant of the role their home institution or company may play in IP development.

Another challenge: How do we incentivize the designers, engineers and tech community to participate in this event? For clinicians and families, the opportunity to connect with smart people who can build the solutions to their problems is its own incentive. For hackers and hopeful health-care startups, the interests are different, as we’ve learned in working with the Hacking Medicine group. While it may come as a surprise, a juicy cash prize for the “winners” of a hackathon isn’t always enough. Rather, mentorship from health-care stakeholders, the chance to connect with health-care incubators/accelerators and opportunities to test their prototypes in a real-world pilot can be far more enticing.

We also will be offering incentives for the groups to continue their work after the event, including opportunities for further funding, development resources such as cloud-server space and mentorship from the Hacking Pediatrics community. To help opportunity flourish, we are bringing in the insight, financial support and promise of mentorship from Boston Children’s leaders such as Chief Information Officer Daniel Nigrin, MD, MS; Chief Innovation Officer Naomi Fried, PhD; Chief Nursing Officer Laura Wood, DNP, MS, RN; and Chief Administrative Officer Dick Argys—as well as the MIT and greater Boston tech community.

By cultivating a community of Boston-area health-care innovators who are interested in helping children, we hope to shepherd good ideas toward a future in the marketplace. You can be part of this community: Apply to join a Hacking Pediatrics team, participate in idea sourcing online and join us for more conversation at Boston Children’s Hospital’s National Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards (Sept. 26-27).

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