Ready, Set… Hack!

Oct. 8, 2015
The inaugural Cleveland Medical Hackathon gathered the brightest and best from across the country to tackle some of healthcare’s deepest data collection challenges.

More than 175 idea-makers and industry mentors commandeered the fourth floor of Cleveland’s Global Center for Health Innovation Sept. 26-27 for a weekend of extreme hacking—with the goal of presenting worthy ideas for using technology to improve healthcare data collection.

The hackathon included participants from across the United States and Canada, and ranged from university students to physicians, and from health IT industry gurus to tech company sponsors. Plenty of industry mentors were on hand to serve as resources, available at stations representing the clinical, technology, community health and legal aspects. The three health systems and primary medical school covering the Northeastern Ohio region—Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth Systems, and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine—all joined the effort as participants, judges and/or industry mentors.

"There’s no better place for a medical hackathon to occur than Cleveland, with its medical wealth and expertise, technology knowledge and entrepreneurs,” Cleveland Clinic Chief of Staff Brian Donley, M.D., told attendees. “We can’t wait to see what you can come up with. Thank you for your passions and innovation to improve the lives of patients and healthcare caregivers."

Everyone met the first morning to swap ideas, eventually forming teams with like-minded goals. By that afternoon, the participants had formed 21 different project teams—far more than hackathon organizers had thought possible for the event’s first endeavor, noted James Krouse, director of marketing and communications for Nesco Resource, the event’s host.  

The pervasiveness of cellular phones, wireless connectivity outside the enterprise and cloud-based computing formed the foundation of most of the projects, allowing the teams’ ideas to harvest a “holy trinity” technology platform that wasn’t readily available even a few years ago, many hackathon participants agreed.

At 2pm, mere hours after the participants had met, the real work began. The team participants pulled an all-nighter inside the innovation center working on their ideas, talking with medical and IT mentors, polishing their previous research and developing prototypes that could solve real healthcare data exchange problems.

By the next morning, the bleary-eyed but confident team members (with cups of caffeine readily in hand) reconvened in the general meeting space to present their projects. The 12-member judging panel of medical professionals, IT experts and local health tech gurus took careful notes on each presentation, and awarded the three prizes:

First Place project ($3,000)—IQ-Sensor Solutions:

This project used sensors embedded in flexible plastic to create a wearable arm band to measure blood pressure, which could send data to the cloud. The application eliminated the need for a traditional blood pressure cuff, and allowed physicians to collect data anywhere and at any time interval. The team included members from Cleveland Clinic, Rockwell Automation, LeanDog and students from the University of Akron and Cornell University.

| See the project here |

Second Place project ($1,000)—NEO+Natal:

Team members chose to combat high infant mortality rates by creating an app that tracked high-risk pregnant mothers and their access level to neonatal services. The app developed specific risk profiles based on geographic location mapping and included specific messaging actions for mothers who live in neighborhoods that are high-risk areas for infant mortality. The team included members from Dragon ID, Cleveland State University, the University of Michigan and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

| See the project here |

Third Place project ($500)—Watershed Health:

Participants developed a mobile electronic inspection form to collect data on water quality and monitor the spread of waterborne diseases or health hazards. The application showed the possibility of reducing water-borne emergency response time from 30 days to one day, based on its detailed mapping algorithms. The team included members from the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Board of Health, an IT designer from Vitamix, a computer analyst from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and a graduate student from Kent State University.

|See the project here |

The quality and professional level of the teamwork and presentations stunned the judges and organizers alike. “Usually there’s an attrition rate in competitions like this. But all teams finished and they all exceeded the expectations of everyone, including the organizers and judges,” William Morris, M.D., associate chief information officer at Cleveland Clinic, told Healthcare Informatics. “Most of these participants were complete strangers, and a lot of them are not healthcare professionals. It was powerful to see them unite under a common purpose.”

Industry technology trends

The overall field of the Cleveland Medical Hackathon’s projects showed some clear technology trends in tackling healthcare’s issues of data gathering and information exchange:

  1. Apps, apps, apps. These days, it’s all about apps that work over today’s pervasive cell phone technology (and not just the “smart” phones).  Most of the team projects chose a cellular interface to communicate patient-specific education messages or to exchange person-centric data with a provider. Most of the apps were designed with the Android OS as the base, since, as many teams stated during their presentations, more than 80 percent of the global cell phone market currently uses the Android OS.
  1. The cloud. If you want to know what middleware looks like these days, look UP. Nearly all the projects chose to use the cloud as the data-broker, either to disseminate educational action-data to the patient or to send patient-specific data back to the provider system.
  1. Health is related to where you live. Community health topics made a prominent showing at the hackathon, stressing the intrinsic relationship between public health data and personal medical data. Several teams offered apps to track public health risks, including water system-based emergencies, infection outbreaks and neonatal risks associated with where patients live—right  down to the street level of mapping.
  1. Quality health outreach needs to be person-specific and locality-centric. Several team projects outlined new models for changing the way health systems reach out to high-risk populations, including mapping data and apps to track vulnerable populations and use specific outreach messaging to help those high-risk populations stay on track.

By the end of the hackathon, the fourth floor showed the telltale signs of true innovation: The coffee urns were drained and a stack of boxes containing cold leftover pizza remained on a side table.

But in less than 33 hours, participants had gone from complete strangers to comrades in the mission of healthcare IT creativity, forging friendships and shaking hands with health IT industry leaders who want to see their projects move on to real-life solutions. In many cases, it shouldn't be too difficult, since nearly all of the teams offered working prototypes at their presentations. And, many projects have the potential of becoming a marketable reality as early as 2016, given the proper backing, the presenters say.

The Cleveland Medical Hackathon will definitely be back next year, Cleveland Clinic’s Morris says; and he can’t wait to see how far the inaugural projects will have progressed by then. Many of this year’s projects, winners or not, have caught the eye of developers, including Cleveland Clinic. In the meantime, Morris says, “The key is, how can we sustain these relationships and these important dialogues for the other 363 days of the year?”

Yet one lesson remains clear: Sometimes, true innovation CAN happen overnight.

Pamela Tabar is Editor-in-Chief of Healthcare Informatics’ sister-brand, Long-Term Living magazine.

For more information about the Cleveland Medical Hackathon, including how to participate next year, see

Healthcare Informatics was proud to serve as the healthcare IT media industry sponsor of the Cleveland Medical Hackathon.

Related blog about the Cleveland Medical Hackathon event:
Goal of Medical Hackathons: ‘Unlikely Conversations’

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