How 'hacking' may help solve some of health care's biggest challenges

If you think you know the definition of "hacking," think again.

A group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created Hacking Medicine in 2011 to give the world a new way to solve some of health care’s biggest challenges. Our company joined the effort this year to sponsor and participate in the group’s hackathons, three-day intense events that tackle confounding health care problems and generate ideas for solving them.

“The mission of Hacking Medicine aligns with our thinking: to democratize health care innovation,” says Arpa Garay, president of our company’s global pharmaceuticals business and a recent hackathon keynote speaker. “Great ideas emerge when you have a group of diverse people wrapping their arms around a specific problem.”

MIT Hacking Medicine's mission:

“To energize, infect and teach health care entrepreneurship and digital strategies to scale medicine as a way to solve health problems worldwide."

Learn more

Since its founding, Hacking Medicine has led more than 200 hackathons in 30-plus countries and multiple U.S. states.

WHAT HAPPENS AT A HACKATHON?

Hackathons are common in the computer science field, but for health care hackathons, participants span every aspect of care, including doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, engineers, policy experts and more.

At the beginning of a hackathon, individuals stand in front of a large group – up to 200 people – and pitch specific problems that need solving. Then, the group whittles down the list and votes on the top problems to attack during the hackathon.

Individuals select the team they want to be part of and apply a problem-solving model from MIT to break apart the issue, brainstorm and spark imaginative solutions. At the end of the hackathon, teams present their ideas and judges select the winners and award cash prizes.

“It’s an inspiring and invigorating experience. People who’ve never met, get together, jump in and work on a problem, day and night for a weekend,” says Michelle Kehily, our company’s associate vice president of global marketing. “It’s a time-bound process that requires a high degree of energy and commitment.”

Michelle served as a mentor and judge during a hackathon held recently in California. During that event, participants voted to create solutions addressing three big issues: chronic diseases, mental health and the need for better health care in rural areas.

“The teams came up with brilliant ideas,” says Michelle, adding they are kept somewhat confidential, since many of the concepts may move forward with pilot programs.

HOW CAN HACKATHONS HELP ADVANCE HEALTH CARE?

Junaid Bajwa, global lead for our company’s strategic alliances group, says hackathons “give participants a new approach to problem-solving, and many use the model to conduct hackathons with their own internal teams.”

They also give participants a glimpse at novel projects that may potentially address serious healthcare issues. Pill Pack, an online pharmacy, is one example. The idea was generated during a hackathon. Last year, Amazon bought Pill Pack for nearly $1 billion.

STACKING UP THE HACKING STATS

7,600+

hours hacked

23,800+

hackers

50+

companies involved

178+

events held

$253M+

venture capital raised

“The word ‘hacking’ often has a negative connotation,” says Arpa. “But in this case, it means creating ingenious solutions. The process works and can deliver something significant to benefit patients and health care.”