Healthcare HackDays

NHS_hackdayHack days or hackathons are increasingly popular, as organisations attempt to tap into interested parties from outside of their traditional talent pool.  I’ve written previously about a recent trend for companies to use hackathons as part of their talent management strategy.  Whilst getting solutions at the end of the event is great, it’s almost seen as more important to identify talented people and hopefully to build a more lasting working relationship with them.

Whilst that trend is growing, it’s far more common for hackathons to coalesce talented and motivated people around a particular cause that they have a passion for.  Earlier this summer for instance, Hack4Good organised a global hackathon in multiple cities around the world in a bid to devise some innovative solutions to climate change.

It’s probably fair to say that the NHS stirs similar passion amongst the British public.  With an election looming, all of the main political parties are clamouring to devow their support for the health service.  It has even been regarded as the nations national religion.  So a hackathon themed around improving the NHS would surely see similar levels of excitement and innovation as that around topics such as climate change.

Yes, and no.  At the recent NHS Hack Day in Leeds, a mixture of developers and clinicians (but sadly no members of the public) gathered together to try and bash out some improvements over the course of the weekend.  That most of the developers in attendance were non-NHS staff was undoubtedly a positive.

The data issue however was a constant barrier.  Whereas Hack4Good had a wealth of data at their disposal, with the Open Data Institute a major partner of the project, the sense was that the NHS Hack Day suffered courtesy of a lack of open and accessible data.

As a result of this, and the lack of public involvement in the event, most of the solutions developed over the weekend had a distinctly back-office feel to them.  For instance, an application was developed to make the renal handover process run more smoothly.  A couple of dental based applications were developed to smooth out various internal processes.

Contrast with the Intel-GE Care Innovations Hackathon

A direct contrast can be made with the recent hackathon run in the US, also in the healthcare field. The Intel-GE Care Innovations Hackathon event split participants into two strange, with one looking at behavioural change, and the other looking at data related topics.

The event saw nine teams, which contained a mixture of computer programmers, developers, engineers, designers, clinicians, scientists, nurses, family caregivers, patients, and entrepreneurs,working on developing solutions that closed the gap between patients and providers.  The sense was that the event was much more geared towards prevention and behavioural change.

“The missing link in patient engagement is how to motivate people to make different choices in the first place,” said Sean Slovenski, CEO of Care Innovations. “Bringing people together from various industries and backgrounds to tackle some of healthcare’s biggest issues while focusing on the patient consumer is the only way we can create a more effective system. The more we can understand the end human being and get in their head, the more likely we can develop something they will actually use.”

This focus was reflected in the kind of solutions generated at the end of the weekend.  The winning participant was called Team 364, which, as their name suggests, aimed to facilitate year round interaction between patients and professionals.  This was achieved by a combination of a kit that was complete with a variety of sensors that enabled the patient and their medical provider to stay in touch all through the year.

Other participants focused on areas such as medication adherence, emotional support for cancer patients via smart phone apps, and the provision of more real-time feedback on how medications are taken, and the reactions to them.

Of course, all hackathons should be encouraging participants to carry on their hacking post-event, as there will inevitably be a limit to what can be achieved during the course of a weekend.  This can not only be achieved by making the outcomes of each project open source and available to others to build on, but also by providing a network of advice and mentorship to help develop each project further.

The CI Patient Engagement Hackfest attempted to maintain this enthusiasm by using organizations such as MIT Hacking Medicine, StartX and Care Innovations themselves to maintain (and strengthen) the connections between the development teams and those who can further their projects.

There are a range of concepts bubbling around the NHS in this regard, including the Apps Marketplace, HANDI and eHealthOpenSource but I’m not really sure however that any of them have really gained any kind of critical mass.  Couple this with the lack of easily available data within the UK health service and events like the Hack Day will perhaps struggle to achieve the results that similar events have achieved elsewhere.  There is a sense that the service does not lack for ideas, but those ideas often get stuck in small pockets rather than spread widely.


10 thoughts on “Healthcare HackDays

  1. I'm sadly not surprised about the NHS one. I think there are so many good and willing people in the health service and they're hamstrung by the arse of a system they work in. Very sad.

  2. I'd be keen to explore a hack that brings together Trusts, patients and disrupotors with a goal of generating 5 solutions that Trusts can implement that week. Maybe call it Beat the Crunch. Take into account data issues but say the solutions have to be applicable to all and not data or tech based. Aim? Remove the barriers that we know exist and find answers using traditional (non tech) techniques. I am sure 5 changes that can be made ASAP will be better than none and make the output action focussed rather than barrier driven.

    • I think having a focus on process would be really valuable Ash. I wonder however if innovation is even needed. As the saying goes, "the future already exists, it's just unevenly distributed." I suspect there is already a lot of good stuff going on in the NHS, but it is isolated in small pockets or within specific trusts. If that could be disseminated and put into practice more widely, that in itself would be hugely beneficial.

  3. Interesting to see the differences in both approaches and outcomes from the two events. I'm surprised that the NHS one didn't have more public facing stuff, especially as the public are so positive about the NHS.

  4. "… making the outcomes of each project open source and available to others to build on…"
    I wonder if sharing project work is really an element of hackaton, by definition. Obviously, it helps if we have open data that can be used for solution/software/app development. But, I doubt if people who participate in hackactons with their ideas, designs, product/market strategies, and initial code will be open to having these as open source, regardless of how noble, selfless the hackaton product purports to be. I, for one, need some data to dev/test, my health app. I am happy to participate in hackatons to share that. But I certainly will not make my creation open source, unless I intended it to be so as a charitable contribution.

    • I suppose in many instances, the outcome of hackathons are indeed charitable contributions, certainly for things such as the NHS. Will you be attending the NHS Hackathon this weekend Noel?

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