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Students create healthcare solutions in Hack Health

Interdisciplinary Hack Health brings together 90 hackers to collaborate, innovate at inaugural event

Students animatedly discussed ideas in lecture halls, whiteboards overflowed with colorful ink, and groups practiced their product pitches. It wasn’t just an ordinary day at the Warren Alpert Medical School — it was the inaugural run of Hack Health.

Hack Health is a hackathon with a mission to “improve healthcare using innovation,” said Alexandra Kaye ’17, one of the co-founders of the event. Though this is its first year, Hack Health has already managed to draw 90 participants from nine schools for the weekend, she said. While most participants were undergraduates, others were medical students or healthcare professionals.

A distinctive part of the health hackathon is its interdisciplinary nature, said Elaina Wang ’17 MD’21, a former Herald senior staff writer and co-founder of the event. From coding to design to policy, many fields are involved in the successful implementation of healthcare, Wang said.

Hack Health is a way for the University, which emphasizes collaboration, to “get a conversation started” about improving healthcare, said Tung Nguyen ’17, also a co-founder of the event.

All three Hack Health co-founders have participated in health hackathons hosted by other universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, Kaye said. Though MIT’s hackathons address certain themes, Brown’s Hack Health team decided to let participants tackle any problem they wanted, she said.

“I hope that (the participants) gain a better understanding of healthcare by talking to other people,” Nguyen said.

The team invited John Sculley ’61 as the keynote speaker the evening of Sept. 16. He kicked off his presentation with a PowerPoint titled “Purpose-Driven Innovation.” As the former president of PepsiCo and CEO of Apple, Sculley depicted some of his esteemed colleagues — such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — as the embodiments of purpose-driven innovators. Sculley recalled Jobs’ words that ultimately shaped his decision to leave PepsiCo and join the Apple team: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Jobs and Bill Gates, Sculley said, never talked about making money — it was always about making a difference and giving people tools to utilize knowledge and bring ideas to life.

In a similar manner, Hack Health participants were tasked with working together to build an idea into a product that would improve healthcare. Some of the main issues that Sculley and the Hack Health co-founders were interested in included the management of chronic care, reduction of healthcare expenditures and increase of overall accessibility to healthcare, Nguyen said.

Beginning the morning of Sept. 17, 17 groups brainstormed and developed products with assistance from mentors until the following afternoon. For example, Katharine Jessiman-Ketcham ’18 and her group worked on an app, ReMEMO, that would allow Alzheimer’s patients to record memos and conversation snippets for themselves.

Heidi Meisenkothen, a Hack Health mentor and associate director of the technology ventures office, was responsible for pointing out potential complications with the product. Meisenkothen, who has been a judge or mentor for many innovation competitions across universities, said she enjoys working with the “energy and dynamism of students.”

One group proposed software that would give customizable video instructions for post-discharge patient care as a solution to patient non-compliance. Another group worked on health education software that would help children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes learn about lifestyle changes, while a third group brainstormed Solace, an app that would provide suggestions for the alleviation of drug side effects, ranging from cognitive behavioral strategies to natural remedies.

Judges at the event included Director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics Neil Sarkar and Robert Greenglass ’07, founder of Waterline Ventures, an “investment firm focused on healthcare technology and technology-enabled services,” according to its website. Sarkar looked for “technological feasibility” of the products as well as direct impact on care, while Greenglass noted that “every company has to be able to make money” and evaluated the viability of the products.

Reflecting on their Hack Health experience, the ReMEMO group said that it was “incredible what (they) managed to accomplish in one day” and that while they had a stressful morning putting all the parts together, they were happy with their overall pitch. Sachin Pendse ’17, a member of the group that designed Solace, said that his group did not feel too anxious because they were all “there for the learning experience.”

The ReMEMO group took first prize in the competition, earning $1,000 for the team. Greenglass said that the judges felt ReMEMO’s pitch was smooth and incorporated all relevant information, while the app seemed fundable and included a variety of viewpoints.

Respondr, an app that allows users to alert nearby EpiPen or inhaler carriers in the event of an emergency, won second place. The next runner-up was Decent Exposure, a group that designed three-part hospital gowns that offered more coverage and were customizable, serving as an alternative to the “dehumanizing and depersonalizing” gowns that are currently in use, according to the group’s final presentation.

Though some hackathons may foster a culture that emphasizes productivity over anything else, Hack Health stressed that participants should not sacrifice their health for their creations, Kaye said. The team rented the Alpert Medical School building until 11 p.m. each night, encouraging participants to get some rest before returning the next day. In addition to sleep, the Hack Health team also pushed participants to let loose and have fun by scheduling a surprise dance break Saturday, featuring OJA! Modern African Dance performers who taught the hackers some moves, she said.

The Hack Health team is excited to see how the hackathon grows from this initial run, hoping to expand its reach and host even more participants in coming years, Nguyen said.


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