Doctors, developers hacking their way to better healthcare
Published Sunday, September 30, 2012 6:40AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, September 30, 2012 1:07PM EDT
Software developers often use "hackathons" to brainstorm ideas with colleagues, especially to design games and create new social media tools. But a new grassroots organization is putting doctors and developers together to hack their way to solutions to health-care inefficiencies.
On a recent Wednesday evening in Toronto, a few dozen developers converged on Toronto General Hospital to discuss Hacking Health’s three-day hackathon in October.
Rather than develop the next "Angry Birds" or "Words With Friends," and pocket heaps of cash for their troubles, these developers want to create tools that make doctors’ work easier and patients’ lives better.
Co-founder Jeeshan Chowdhury, himself a PhD in health information systems and a third-year medical student at the University of Alberta, said the idea for Hacking Health came to him at a health conference in Montreal. He attended a discussion on health care innovation, which was led by a panel that didn’t know the first thing about technology, or software design and development.
He then went to a hackathon, an event where groups of developers work together in small groups on new software or apps, and found tech wonks who were eager to put their skills to work on something other than the latest social media trend.
"You meet people saying, 'You know, my grandparents had dementia and I want to be able to do something,'" Chowdhury told CTVNews.ca.
Hacking Health came together pretty quickly after Chowdhury joined forces with an executive in the eHealth sector, Luc Sirois.
Sirois, an executive at Nightingale, said the hackathon concept makes quick work of the process to create solutions to health-care dilemmas.
"(Physicians) are always facing really big, top-down health-care projects that last forever…. there’s a lot that can be done that doesn’t require multi-million-dollar investments and multi-year projects," Sirois said.
The first-ever Hacking Health hackathon was held in Montreal, an event that was originally planned for about 30 people. It ended up with more than 200 registered participants.
The beginnings of 19 projects came out of the Montreal event, including an app called iCaregiver, which reminds patients about appointments, medication timelines and even games and allows their caregivers to ensure they are taking their pills and otherwise keeping up with their health-care regimen.
Another app was designed for patients with type 2 diabetes that would track data such as blood-glucose levels, weight and blood pressure over time to provide a more detailed picture of the patient’s progress to health-care providers.
Just as at the Montreal event, Sirois and Chowdhury have invited doctors, nurses, hospital CEOs, bureaucrats and other stakeholders to the Toronto hackathon, which willbe held Oct. 19 to 21.
"Let’s not make it so that the only way physicians are involved is at a seminar or a lunch where the system is imposed on them," Chowdhury said to explain the Hacking Health model. "Let’s put them at the beginning, at the heart of the development, ask 'What do you need and how do you want it to look, and work?'"
That approach suits Dr. Peter Rossos just fine. Rossos, the University Health Network’s chief medical information officer, said health care is a field that relies so heavily on doctors communicating with each other and with their patients, as well as having quick access to data such as treatments and test results. But, the field lags behind other industries in making use of the latest technology, he said.
"For patients to receive the best care, it has to be very effective and timely -- I’d say instantaneous in some cases -- communication between the various care providers," Rossos told CTVNews.cabeforeaddressing the developers. "And you can’t do that off the back of a clipboard."
Developer Ray Kao attended the pre-hackathon meeting in Toronto to learn more about Hacking Health’s model for bringing doctors and developers together.
Kao worked in the health-care sector for three years, when he said he saw first-hand how a “very bureaucratic, government-run system” can slow down progress.
"In Canadian health care, innovation is lacking," Kao told CTVNews.ca.
The key for the developers who attend Hacking Health events, he said, is to not only find out what tools health-care providers need, but also what impediments developers might face, such as concerns about patient confidentiality.
While the developers will be meeting with local doctors and other health-care stakeholders, they hope their apps and software will one day take the world by storm.
Chowdhury said it will be up to his organization to learn to foster the projects that come out of the hackathons, from helping developers move from the prototype stage to developing a business plan.
"We need to fix these problems, but we don’t need to wait for Bangalore or Silicon Valley to solve them for us, and then we buy them," he said. "We can make them here in Canada, we can build them here, we can implement them across the country, and then we can sell them across the globe."
After Toronto’s event, Sirois and Chowdhury hope to bring their hackathons to Calgary and Vancouver.