Hackathons, the future of connected healthcare

Dr. Joris Galland, a specialist in internal medicine is passionate about new technologies. He looks at some trends in the expanding overlap between medicine and digitalisation.

Looking at the events where healthcare professionals and innovators imagine and create

Dr. Joris Galland is a specialist in internal medicine. After practising at the Lariboisière Hospital (Paris, France) he joined the Bourg-en-Bresse Hospital. Passionate about new technologies, he tackles some upcoming trends in the overlap between medicine and digitalization.

Made in cooperation with our partners from esanum.fr

The term "hackathon" may not be familiar to you. At first glance it can be confusing because, although the portmanteau has the word “hack”, there are no issues of illegality here. On the contrary, I am going to talk to you about a revolution that has shaken up innovation in health.

For several years now, connected health has been booming. Unfortunately, the deployment of these new technologies is late and heterogeneous - compared to the current possibilities and applications that could take place in the sector. Why do so many hospitals still use faxes when most companies communicate by email, chatbot or instant messaging? The answer is not obvious, but if we take a step back we can attribute this technological backwardness to the lack of collaboration between three very different worlds:

  1. The (para)medical world, which also includes patients,
  2. The IT world composed of engineers, designers, coders, developers, etc,
  3. The world of entrepreneurs and innovators

An emblematic example of this lack of collaboration was the arrival of the first computerised patient records (CPR). Using France as an example, many companies embarked on a rush to deploy their CPR solutions across French hospitals. The race result? A multitude of CPR providers coexist, without a real sector leader and with very variable satisfaction rates from clients. These software products, designed by computer specialists, often miss the mark on the user experience (also known as UX) they offer the (para)medical clients using them. That is, they have neither the ergonomics nor the functionalities expected by the professionals affected.

Finally, most of these solutions have undergone and are still undergoing modifications following their deployment, whereas it would have been so much more relevant - and economical - to develop them upstream in collaboration with their future users. This is where hackathons come in: these events put health professionals at the centre of project development processes for digital health solutions.

So, what is a hackathon?

As its name suggests, it is first and foremost a marathon. This term could also be described as a "marathon of innovation". A hackathon is a competition with a winner and losers. The programme does not involve piracy, but rather creativity and idea development.

In general, a hackathon is a competition event that takes place over a weekend, in a given place, with a precise objective: to create ex-nihilo a software, an application, an algorithm, a robot, or any other concrete solution in only two days. Hackathons can be held in various fields, such as commerce or even law. But, with the ongoing speed of innovation taking place in healthcare and medicine due to the digitalization era, the solutions being created at the moment for the health sector are of such a scale that they deserve our undivided attention.

During a hackathon, time is of the essence: you race to develop the best project in a limited time. The biggest "health" hackathon in France is the "Hacking Health Camp". It takes place every year in Strasbourg and lasts exactly 50 hours, non-stop, from Friday evening to Sunday evening. 50 hours and not one more so that a simple starting idea is turned into a final product that can be presented to users and consumers. The key is to bring together participants and stakeholders from all of the three aforementioned “worlds”.

A good pitch, and a whole lot of coffee

First step, the group prepares caffeine or some energy drinks... Usually, during a hackathon, you don't take the time to sleep (or you sleep for very little). Among the crowds present at such a competition are a mix of health professionals (physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, dentists, pharmacists, patients...), computer specialists (coders, designers, engineers...) and entrepreneurs. The hackathon is above all a meeting place for project leaders and contributors.

Friday evening...

A health professional comes to "pitch" an idea. Pitching means presenting it very succinctly - sometimes in one or few minutes - with enough ease and conviction to trigger the participants’ interest. This is downright public speaking, because the objective is of course to have a viable project, but also to make it seem captivating enough to attract several contributors that will then form a team.

As an example, allow me to present you my very own experience giving a pitch: As a physician, I thought that requesting inter-departmental advice and/or sending photos between physicians could be improved by creating an instant messaging application entirely for physicians. In front of an audience made up of computer scientists, entrepreneurs and health professionals, and faced with competing projects, I stated the problem and pitched my idea for such a digital application on Friday evening.

My "rivals" of the day were a pharmacist who wanted to create a drone drug delivery platform, a patient suffering from blindness who wanted to develop a tracking application to support his mobility around the city, and a physician who had the idea of a computer application for collecting biological data.

The four musketeers

By 8 o'clock all the project leaders had finished their pitches and the teams were forming spontaneously.  For my part, my project attracted an entrepreneur, a designer, a physician and a developer. My "team" was born. The next 50 hours would be punctuated by interactions between the team members. Together, they must ensure that the project develops properly, without deviating from the initial objective.

From the outset, the entrepreneur goes about finding the name and logo of the application. He targets the customer base, assesses the product’s added value, drafts the communication strategy and imagines digital marketing processes, such as advertising on social networks. And he is already thinking about how he will present the product at the end of the weekend! 

"My" IT specialists start working on the software right away. While the designer creates the interface for the instant messaging, he gets closer to the entrepreneur to define items such as colour palettes and logo placements. At each stage of his work, the designer asks the physicians to check and validate the ergonomics of the messaging system. This application will be of no interest if it turns users off.

As for the developer, her eyes are glued to the lines and lines of code. While she works mainly with the designer, she also interacts with the physicians. As she progresses with the coding, ideas come to mind: "Would it be possible to download and scroll through scanner imaging samples in the application?". In this case, the developer agrees: "Of course, it's easy!". These incessant interactions between professionals from various backgrounds, this collaborative work, is the secret ingredient of the success for e-health innovation.

And the winner is...

Sunday evening brings about the end of the hackathon. All teams present their project in front of a jury of experts.  In the end, a hackathon is a mixture of adrenaline, fatigue, and lack of sleep. But above all it's the beginning of great stories. Usually the winners don't stop there and the team quickly turns into a start-up. Many start-ups are born during a hackathon. Since its creation in 2014, the Hacking Health Camp has seen 178 projects result in prototypes. 22 companies have been born there. Among them, I would like to mention four:

Born in a hackathon, several of these projects were then able to raise enough funds to develop over the long term. Should you be interested in such an event, the next Hacking Health Camp will meet again from March 26th to 28th, 2021. Online only, of course. But the pandemic won´t stop creativity!