After a morning spent passionately discussing critical problems in health care, undergraduate and graduate students teamed up to devise innovative solutions to the issues they found most compelling. Thus began the third annual Brown Hack Health — a weekend-long hackathon devoted to exploring and developing new ideas to fill the cracks in health care delivery systems around the world.
This year’s Hack Health brought around 75 participants spanning a variety of disciplines and education levels together into 12 teams that tackled different problems, said Hack Health Co-Presidents Elizabeth Carlson ’19 and Emily Yamron ’20. Many teams chose issues related to this year’s theme of emergency care, though they could work on any health care problem that interested them.
One team — consisting of Alexander Homer ’21, Viknesh Kasthuri ’21 and George Lee ’21 — worked on an app intended to reduce overutilization of emergency services for noncritical situations while improving response times for critical situations, such as opioid overdoses or strokes. The app — called GoodSam — would allow community members with life-saving certifications to register as Good Samaritans who could be called to respond to nearby emergencies, the team explained.
On another team, Christy Mo ’21, Siddhi Nadkarni ’21 and Meaghan O’Brien — a visiting student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst — aimed to address the problem of poor access to routine medication during natural disasters. “Something that we’ve really been inspired by and also really disturbed by is that one third of the deaths in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were attributed to a lack of continuation of medical care,” Nadkarni said. Their solution, a program called Mediship, proposed creating a database that emergency shelters could use to compile the medical needs of occupants and coordinate shipments of necessary medications from health organizations.
After the teams worked through the weekend to refine their solutions, spending hours brainstorming, collaborating and receiving feedback from mentors, they presented their work to a panel of judges that awarded a grand prize as well as prizes in five subcategories, Yamron said.
This judging structure marked a shift from previous Hack Health events, which awarded prizes for first, second and third place teams, Yamron added. The five prizes given out in different categories — awarded for solutions related to emergency care, sustainability, social activism, technology and engineering — aimed to highlight the intersection of health care, entrepreneurship, technology and other fields.
“One of our missions in running (Brown Hack Health) is to get people to consider how these fields could be bettered together,” Yamron said. “Not just how they can work together, but how they can work synergistically to improve each discipline.”
Accordingly, Hack Health attracted participants from diverse fields of study ranging beyond medicine. “There’s a lot of people who are interested in health within what they study,” Carlson said. Over 50 distinct combinations of concentrations were represented among the pool of registered participants, she added.
The Mediship team, for example, consisted of a public health and economics concentrator, an environmental studies concentrator and a chemical engineering major. Each team member’s unique perspective brought important insights and skills to the target problem, Nadkarni said.
The panel of five judges also represented a diversity of disciplines, ranging from medicine to engineering. “We tried to assemble a panel of judges that reflects the industries that we’re trying to bring together,” Yamron said. The panel included Pooja Aysola, clinical instructor in medical science; Barrett Hazeltine, professor of engineering; Celinda Kofron, associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering; Jen Nazareno, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences; and Neil Sarkar, director of the Center for Biomedical Informatics.
GoodSam won the award in the category of technology, and Mediship won in the category of social activism. Both teams took home $100 in prize money. The $500 grand prize went to the winners of the engineering hack category, who developed an idea called AutoMedic.
“A lot of medications are thrown away every day,” explained Colette Bare ’19, a member of the AutoMedic team. “They’re mostly produced in single-size doses that are single-use vials that you have to toss afterwards based on hospital regulations for safety and sanitary reasons.” AutoMedic would be an automated system capable of dispensing drugs for medical use in correct dosages to cut down on drug waste, improve safety and prevent theft of controlled substances, Bare said.
Presented with a variety of impressive submissions, choosing winners was no easy choice for the judges, Aysola, Nazareno and Kofron agreed. “We had to truly have a conversation amongst everybody to gather all those perspectives to see what was the best solution all around, rather than what was the best solution for a clinician, the best solution for an engineer, the best solution for public health,” Kofron said.
In the end, the judges concluded that AutoMedic had the broadest appeal and applicability. “They addressed everything that we were concerned about,” Nazareno said. “It was an innovative idea that we found would be appealing to a lot of different markets,” Aysola added.
The hackathon kicked off Friday night with a keynote presentation from Geoff Capraro, a pediatric emergency physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine. Since 2016, Capraro has worked to implement an idea called the NaloxBox — a publicly-accessible cabinet containing naloxone, a life-saving drug that can treat opioid overdoses — which arose from the first Brown Hack Health.
“Naloxone is a resurrection drug,” Capraro said in his talk. “There are only a few silver bullets in emergency medicine, and we love when we get to use them. They restore life, preserve function and make recovery possible.” Capraro devoted much of his presentation to explaining how NaloxBox went from a hackathon idea to a life-saving health care device while maintaining a focus on the tragic impacts of the opioid epidemic that NaloxBox aims to mitigate.
Capraro’s talk was well-received by Hack Health participants. “This simple thing that (Capraro) pitched at a hackathon has gone on to save so many lives,” Nadkarni said. “It was really cool to see how something that came out of a hackathon actually can go on and impact so many people.”
But developing solutions to health care problems is not Hack Health’s only goal. “It’s important to create solutions, but I think it’s more important to get students thinking in a way they’ve probably never thought before — having a very specific problem that they’re trying to solve over the course of a weekend,” Carlson said. “You’re doing it with people that you may not know, and you learn that you can work off one another and work off each other’s skills.”