Collaboration on the Front Lines: Physicians and Coders Unite


The role of physicians has evolved vastly over the decades, and physicians have worn many hats to reflect the changing demands for their services. But have they realized their full potential when it comes to harnessing technology? A hackathon I recently attended made me reflect on the role physicians have during disaster relief efforts and how they can better work with those in the tech industry.

In the wake of a natural disaster, front line health personnel have an opportunity: to combine forces with those of different skills to deliver relief in the most efficient way possible. Willow Brugh, long-time hacker and director of Geeks Without Bounds, an accelerator for humanitarian projects, emphasizes how different players’ talents in an emergency response can be optimized to deal with a disaster most effectively. The impetus for starting GWOB, Brugh states, was acknowledging that hackers and coders have the knowhow and desire to help, but struggle to gain access because they are not typical caregivers.

The GWOB emerged because in the midst of a natural disaster, many individuals and organizations want to help but don’t know how.  Also, even if they are directed to complete a task, their efforts might get overrun by competing priorities.  In an attempt to mitigate this, GWOB runs a 6-month program for coders to develop projects. Specific projects, which all focus on coordinated response to a natural disaster, are then sold and teams are hired for implementation. Sometimes businesses or non-profits are even started around a project. All tools are released under open source with the intention to give back to the community from which the ideas emerged.

Where does health care play a role? On the front line, in an emergency, many medical first responders often do not immediately see benefits to working with people outside health care. What’s more, there does not exist a good framework within current humanitarian response systems that support doctors working with non-doctors. The goal should be for collaboration in emergency response efforts between front line medical responders and technology innovators.

So what were some of the project ideas that emerged from the hackathon? The ideas were impressively creative. One ideas, the open street map, has a list of searches identifying the exact location of an individual requiring emergency assistance. Such an app allows a city fire department or other first responders to locate individuals quickly. Another idea was to use geo-coding data from tweets to visualize hashtags over the course of a number of hours. Sparse tweets may result from a loss of signal to the area caused by disaster situations. Heatmapping the density of tweets over time would enable responders to locate blackholes, where tweets are no longer occurring. If enough data is collected over time, historical data may be used to predict when blackholes occur to optimize future responses.

Another idea was for a wiki of etherpads to be used for emergency response personnel. This would create a collection tasks needed to be competed, updated in real time. The possibilities of how to use the data are endless, including location and preparation for mending likely injuries.

Physicians have a great opportunity to get involved in projects emerging from GWOB.  Furthermore, they are in a prime position by being one of the main players of emergency response teams. Such collaboration is simple and critical.  So why are we all still operating in silos?


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Originally from Canada, Manisha Sachdeva is a registered physiotherapist and Irish-based medical student. She works with marginalized populations, particularly refugees and the homeless community. Her latest research includes counseling on end-of-life wishes and integration of advance directives into medical record systems, as well as co-developing a preventive health care tool for an inner city electronic medical record system. She’s the founder of a student think tank and she's interested in the dimensions of social innovation in health care.


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