Health Hackathons: Can Digital Health Innovation be Hacked?


Since OpenBSD and Sun coined the term “hackathon” back in 1999, dozens of these competitions have been held all over the world. The concept is simple: programmers come together to innovate and develop new tech applications. Teams usually compete for a prize ( offers a good summary). Here we ask whether healthcare can use the same model for better and faster innovation.

Successful companies like GroupMe started out of the Hackathon model. Later acquired by Skype for $85 million, GroupMe enables users to create private chat rooms on the fly, where small groups can communicate. It’s an idea you can imagine popping up around the coffee table with your most creative friends, where one just says: “Well, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all message each other and share thoughts, videos, and pictures in real time, easily and most conveniently via a mobile app…?”

In a hackathon scenario, the coffee-table group participates as a team. To win, teams often work for several days and nights (although 24 or 48 hours is not uncommon) to build and program a minimal viable product. Then, they demo it in front of a panel of judges. Hyped by the possibility of creating the next successful tech company, teams are usually determined to create something fast and ugly that resembles an innovative product or service which uses tech to solve a specific problem. The presentations for the judges usually also include a short marketing pitch that requires the teams to think about the business model and how it might scale.

Hackathons are now very popular. At this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in San Francisco, 1,200 hackers came, hacked and conquered. The result was 238 new tech innovation concepts.

Value number one of hackathons? Speed. It took only a few days for all these ideas to be executed. Secondly, a team can leave a hackathon with enough clear focus to build a real tech company. They ought to leave with a well-functioning and motivated team, ready to kick off for real right away. “In this short time, you can really figure out whether you can work with the people on your team. And if you win, you’ll leave with a feeling that you could also win with a company in the marketplace”, says one participant at a BMJ Hack day in July 2013.

In 2013, health hackathons took off, too. The US based movement Health 2.0 mastered hackathons in the healthcare vertical, calling them Health Code-a-thons. In 2013, they organized six of them, supported by considerable industry partners as sponsors. Health 2.0’s Developer Challenge Community handed out a total of $5,276,910 in prize money. Just a couple of weeks back, Health 2.0 held its New York State Health Data Code-a-Thon. It featured industry giants like Bryan Sivak (Chief Technology Officer of the HHS) and Dwayne Spradlin (CEO of the Health Data Consortium) as judges. Health hackathons are also receiving much more attention from governments and industry. “We saw an increased demand by digital health innovators to participate in our challenges”, says Jean-Luc Neptune, Senior Vice President at Health 2.0.

At the recent Copenhagen Connect Health Hack, organizers held a hackathon for connected health devices. The challenge for Vanessa Carpenter, Interaction Designer at IdemoLab at DELTA who designed the hack day: “Can we offer a set of the most popular connected health devices to hackers with open development kits, give health professionals and innovators complete control of the data and devices and ask them to create new health applications? The answer was a resounding “Yes”. Health professionals and the medical device industry hacked together and collaborated. The event was even open to the public. The winning team came up with “iTan”, a connected wearable device synced with a mobile app to measure UV exposure, to help prevent skin cancer. “Events like this contribute real value to our industry because it educates innovators in what it takes to innovate”, says Uwe Diegel, Vice President at iHealthLabs Europe, one of the judges. “It is extremely successful, and invaluable for the learning experience of participants”, says Carpenter.

Last November, Create Lab at Imperial College held the “Invent the Future Makeathon” for the health innovation category (won by Stress Roulette). Mark Hammond, Director at Imperial Create Lab, confirms the value of the hackathon model: “It forces people to get started. It’s easy to theorise about ideas forever but ultimately no one knows what will work in the market until they start getting user feedback and that’s a lot more effective with something to show even when it is only a rough prototype. They are also fantastic for bringing people of diverse backgrounds together which increases the chance of creating novel solutions and strong teams over time”, he says. Inga Deakin, Associate at Imperial Innovations healthtech innovation adds, “Events like these are a great opportunity for students and researchers to try thinking differently… at the event there were lots of ideas, energy and ambition and a message that bright, motivated students can start up a company and have a measurable impact on health outcomes.”

Of course, despite the cheering for faster tech innovation at hackathons, the health vertical brings its own challenges for tech innovators. Regina E. Herzlinger in her HBR article writes that “a little-appreciated barrier to technology innovation involves technology itself—or, rather, innovators’ tendency to be infatuated with their own gadgets and blind to competing ideas”. It’s true that a health system like the NHS in the UK already has some integrated digital solutions and certainly its own unique complexities. If innovators don’t understand the health system environment and its own inherent problems, they may invent stand-alone or useless solutions for the wrong problems.

One way to stay relevant and come up with better solutions is to involve more health professionals and patients. NHS Hack Days aim to invite all three groups. Past NHS Hack Days featured solutions for real problems: Video consultations in primary care, reducing A&E waiting time, better online access to patient’s blood results, tools to give clinicians up-to-date details when they need them, and platforms that reduce errors in care-  all these are possible with the right people around the hackathon tables.

Carl Reynolds, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust at the NHS Hack Days says here that “it takes leadership that understands technology and is bold enough to modernize digital services delivery by embracing openness (open governance and open source)”, to meet the challenges of the NHS. This will need to include openness towards patients and clinicians too. It’s important that Health Hackathon organizers make sure that they get patients, health professionals and hackers to their venues (best, represented in equal numbers).

NHS Hack Days are gaining in popularity and support. Cheerleaders include Sir Bruce Keogh and author Ben Goldacre, prestigious organizations like UKGovCamp and Right Care. John Spindler, CEO of Capital Enterprise which supports digital health startups in London says: “We need a system to publicly reward people in the NHS who have the guts to try something new and potentially awesome”. What if health professionals could be rewarded in some way for participating in health hackathons: would that bring more of them into the room?

How much contribution health hackathons are making to the healthcare revolution is not clear. We know the concept generates more solutions, although not necessarily better ones (dependent largely on the people participating). How innovation systems effectively support great hackathon ideas remains unanswered. But it is not impossible that a health hackathon could be the seed for the next billion dollar digital health company. It might help if everyone went along to one and gave the concept a chance.

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Ben Heubl is a Health 2.0 advocate and an expert in the innovation business consulting arena of this industry. His main interest is how to use technology to make an impact for patients and hereby targeting the intersection between entrepreneurship, open innovation, technology and large corporations. Ben co-organized TEDMEDlive Bologna and is TEDMED delegate, is non-for-profit founder of Health 2.0 Copenhagen, Medstartr (EU division) and MyHealthInnovationBlog. Meanwhile he is a mentor at HealthXL, works with ICG and supports KairosSociety and its student's engagements in healthcare innovation. You can follow him on Twitter (@benheubl)


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