News Feature | April 17, 2014

Can Hackathons Fix Health IT?

Katie Wike

By Katie Wike, contributing writer

Healthcare Hackathon

Could the software community’s popular “hackathons” lend a hand to medical technology as well?

MIT recently hosted Hacking Medicine's Grand Hackfest, where computer and software experts from around the world gathered for one weekend to tackle health IT. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 450 people showed up to work on possible solutions to problems involving diabetes, rare diseases, global health, and information technology used at hospitals.

New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have held hackathons in the past. MIT has co-sponsored health hackathons in India, Spain, and Uganda. Winning teams in each category won $1,000, as well as access to the hackathons sponsors for advice and pilot projects.

"We’re all super-nerds here," Andrea Ippolito, a PhD student at MIT told WGBH News. She co-leads the student group Hacking Medicine, which has nothing to do with violating computer security. "At MIT, we think of hacking as a really positive thing," she said. "It means getting things done in a really short period of time and making a difference."

Sharon Moalem, a physician who studies rare diseases learned firsthand the value of the Hackathon. For years he had been developing a mobile app that can take pictures of faces to help diagnose rare genetic conditions, but could not figure out how to give the images a standard size scale to make comparisons. Dr. Moalem said he was approached by an MIT student at the Hackathon who suggested sticking a coin on the subjects' forehead. Since quarters have a standard measurement, it "creates a scale," said Dr. Moalem.

Amazed, Dr. Moalem says he had never considered such a simple, elegant solution. The Wall Street Journal says the team went on to write code to help standardize facial measurements based on the dimensions of a coin and a credit card.

"Sometimes when you are too close to something, you stop seeing solutions, you only see problems," Dr. Moalem said. "I needed to step outside my own silo.''