By Kim Bellard, April 9, 2014
Who knew hacking might help us reinvent our health care system?
I must be old-fashioned, or at least not a true techie, because I still thought of hacking as a bad thing.I was thus surprised to read in The Wall Street Journal that “hackathons” are a trend for the good in health care.
For others who are also behind this particular curve, hackathons are intense, all-night (or more) sessions when a small groups of programmers band together to attack tough specific problems with concentrated coding efforts.
The Journal article highlighted MIT’s Hacking Medicine’s Grand Hackfest, which is part of MIT’s Hacking Medicine initiative. MIT has been at this since 2011, seeking synergies between MIT’s technical expertise and the vaunted Boston-area medical community. They believe hackers can help health care with: Scaling Medicine, Accelerating Data, Identifying and Tackling Big Opportunities, Hacking Ethos for Lean Medical Innovation, and Infecting Non-Life-Scientists with the Mission.
Pretty lofty list of goals.
Goodness knows that health IT has never been known for being either nimble or on the cutting edge, so some fresh blood with new perspectives certainly seems like a good idea, right? As one clinician whose mobile app benefited from solutions suggested at the MIT hackathon said, "Sometimes when you are too close to something, you stop seeing solutions, you only see problems. I needed to step outside my own silo.''
Not to be outdone by Boston, New York-Presbyterian Hospital recently held what they claim was the first Hackathon for New York Hospitals, which the specific aim of helping them improve myNYP, their patient portal. Out on the other coast, UCLA-Berkeley has had three iterations of their own version, Hacking Health.
Just to rub us oldsters’ noses in it, there’s an organization called YTH (youth + tech + health) that believes the “#selfie generation” can do better. They just hosted their own Health Hackathon in conjunction with their YTH Live 2014 conference.
The trend is not limited to the United States. The British National Health Service has NHS Hack Days, in Canada there is Hacking Health, and in Europe there’s CPH Health Connect HackDay in Copenhagen and Hacking Health Stockholm.
Looking back at last fall’s healthcare.gov debacle, or more recent reports of similar issues with various state exchanges, one has to wonder if they just should have held a hackathon.
PwC’s 6th Annual Digital IQ Survey found that healthcare CEOs were far ahead of other industries in championing information technology as an integral part of their strategy. I rather doubt that many health systems or payors are using hackathons for their big mainframe-based systems – like eligibility, billing, claims payment, or (most) EHRs – but mobile efforts are natural targets for this kind of approach.
There’s no shortage of targets. Payors are finding ways to use mobile technology to cut administrative costs, engage members, and manage patients’ care. Still, in a recent Robert Half Technology survey of CIOs, health care led the pack in lacking a mobile strategy.
No wonder they might be looking for hackers.
It’s great to bring in new ways of attacking the many problems of health care, but I do worry what happens when they hit the may brick walls health care has. I’ve been seen several instances where non-health care companies – especially financial services firms -- dipped in to health care, thinking they could bring their expertise to bear, only to be shocked at how messy much of the data is.
What I like best about the hacking in health movement is twofold – bringing in new kinds of expertise and an attitude that problems can be solved. Those have been sorely missing in health care. Or, as Mark Twain once put it, “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.”