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Goal of Medical Hackathons: ‘Unlikely Conversations’

August 9, 2015
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Cleveland event to bring together large health systems, student app developers and entrepreneurs

“Hackathon” events focused on healthcare are becoming increasingly popular, as digital apps developers apply their skills to solving some of healthcare’s most intractable problems. For instance, an upcoming 36-hour event in the Washington, D.C., metro area, will bring together students with design and coding skills to build mobile apps to help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Medical Hackathon to be held Sept. 26 and 27 at the HIMSS Global Center for Health Innovation in downtown Cleveland will focus on big data. Lead partners behind the Cleveland MedHack include Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the MetroHealth System and BioEnterprise.

James Krouse with nationwide staffing agency Nesco Resource, which is sponsoring the Cleveland event, said one goal is to engender unlikely conversations, meaning parties coming together that normally wouldn’t be in the same room. “Cleveland has these world-class institutions and a burgeoning startup culture, but one of the dangers with world-class institutions is that they can exist in spite of the geography of the place itself,” he said. “But we are starting to see walls broken down. The hackathon is not only about solutions, but connections made.”

I asked some IT execs with Cleveland Clinic about their perceptions of hackathons and why they are eager to participate.

William Morris, M.D., the associate chief information officer at Cleveland Clinic, agreed with Krouse that a hackathon is first and foremost about establishing community. “Healthcare is a practical north star to rally towards. We are all consumers of healthcare and all have a duty to think about the experience of healthcare on the consumption side but also on the administrative side,” he said. “We think Northeast Ohio is poised to address this in a unique way. We have leading healthcare institutions such as Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals and leading universities where the next generation of computer scientists, Web developers and designers are coming from.”

He added that health systems also are participating because they have a direct need. “We have to deliver higher quality care at a lower cost. We feel that technology is a key enabler.”

Beth Meese, R.N., administrative director of technology and innovations at Cleveland Clinic, said a hackathon allows you to have a clinical idea and see it developed and become part of your organization. “Clinical teams often don’t know where to take ideas to see them be developed,” she said. They are out on the unit caring for patients, and an idea sits in the back of their minds but they may not know how to bring it to fruition. So to see something developed is exciting for clinical teams and it spurs more innovation.”

Meese added that there is a startup mentality developing within the hospital systems as well. “Everyone has a large massive EHR system, but it can’t do everything. How can we augment those products and integrate them to address challenges within healthcare systems? Hospitals are creating startups within, and that is bubbling up.”

Speaking to the big data theme, Morris said the hackathon would give people an opportunity to turn data into knowledge by aggregating and managing data from wearables, sensors and activity monitors.

“There is data all around us,” he said, “but the signal to noise ratio is a real challenge. With our Fitbit and iPhone we are just creating more data. The call to action is to find the needle in the haystack and provide the information that will impact the population or intimately affect one person.”

Morris came back to Krouse’s theme of unlikely connections. “I might have an idea about ways to manage diabetics and yet struggle with reaching younger patients who may not see the future complications of blood sugar management. But at a hackathon, I may make an uncommon connection with a gamer, who isn’t thinking about diabetes, but a way to drive motivation.”

The Cleveland Medical Hackathon is free to attend and to participate in, but an application is necessary to participate. Individuals and teams are encouraged to apply at

I told the Cleveland Clinic exec we would check back with them after the event to hear about their impressions.