H@cking Medicine

This past weekend, I went to the H@cking Medicine conference at the MIT Media Lab; a conference aimed towards bringing a diverse group of people together to hack at solutions to problems at healthcare. It was a great time, so I decided to blog about my experiences this weekend! The following consists of a combination of my notes (taken during the conference) and my memories, in as close to chronological order as I could determine.


On 2012 Feb 15, I received an e-mail about an event called H@cking Medicine. The e-mail said that it was a conference aiming to bring “Engineers, scientists, physicians, and entrepreneurs, in one location, creating disruptive healthcare solutions today.” An opportunity to create disruptive tehchnology piqued my curiosity, and I decided to at least read more about it.

Reading about the Fall 2011 event, I found that it focused on ‘Big Data’ (Aquisition and Analysis), ‘Biosensing and Biostimulation’, ‘Healthcare Automation’, and ‘Synthetic Biology’. Now, those were some topics I could get interested in! I was sold on the event, and decided to apply to be one of 80 participants. A few days later, I received a response that said my application was been accepted, and I was awarded a scholarship to cover the conference fee.

2012 Feb 25 9:30 — I arrived at the conference. Checked in and got my name tag, and was introduced to the first quirk of the event — I had to pick a colored sticker to label what my background was. The options were ‘Engineer’ (Orange), ‘Business’ (Blue), ‘Healthcare Professional’ (Green), or ‘Design’ (Pink). As much as I like to think of myself as a creative design type, I grabbed an orange sticker and put it on my name tag. I grabbed a sharpie and clarified: EECS/BIO. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was one of those software types.

The room was already full of about 50 people (of the expected 80), many of them already chatting and forming groups. Turns out the little stickers were pretty unnecessary — I could tell everyone’s background just by looking around the room. Nice collared shirts, slacks, shiny shoes — the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Software and web developers wore jeans and tight black t-shirts. Anyone with a background in design had a business-casual collared sweater on. And not a single other pair of BDUs in the entire room. Sigh.

Socialization was not going to happen until coffee did, I realized. So I took care of that first, and with a donut in one hand and some go-juice in the other, I found grabbed an open seat at a table. Rejuvenated by caffeine, I found it in me to start chatting with the people at the table. Three out of four were physicians, and it was really eye opening to hear their views about technology in healthcare. The bottom line I got from several physicians:

-While you’re a resident, your focus is in making sure that people don’t die. Anything that isn’t directly related to patient care (like learning new technologies) is considered a waste of time.
-Most of the techniques that are taught and shared focus on time-saving, not accuracy or efficacy.
-Seven years later you become a fellow, and you haven’t done any real experiments, science, or academic learning for most of your residency. You’re so far behind that you don’t have much time to be able to pick up new things that aren’t directly related to your career goals.

Frequent words thrown around (by healthcare professionals!) about their technology: ‘archaic’, ‘broken’, ‘technology-adverse’, and at times, ‘barbaric’! My impression was that there is definitely work to be done in healthcare — there’s tons of problems that need to be solved; now they just need people willing and able to solve them.

2012 Feb 25 10:30 — The event starts. The organizers say a few brief words to get everyone pumped, and Jason Jacobs kicks the event off with the story of his own startup (RunKeeper). I’m not usually one for speakers kicking things off with inspirational stories, but Jason had some very practical advice to give about solving problems and starting a company

-Don’t overanalyze, just do something. You can analyze it when you’re done with it.
-Keep a broader vision in mind for the big pictures, but work on narrow, concrete problems that you can ‘hit out of the park’
-work with people that you get along with and are likeminded rather than the most skilled.

Very wise words!

2012 Feb 25 11:00 — The event starts to really get going when the organizers ask for some problems that need to get solved. Ideas start flying from crowd, ranging from conservative to extremely radical, and from the specific to broad and general:

-Cost transparency in hospitals
-leveraging social media to encourage healthy lifestyles
-public-access health data
-improve inefficiencies in healthcare (scheduling, automation, etc.)
-centralization of health information (especially about medication side effects, alternatives, etc.)

And then they started asking for solutions, and even more creative, radical, amazing ideas started coming out from the crowd. We could’ve been there for hours just listening to ideas, but when it was obvious that everyone was ready to get hacking, they let us loose for a while to intermingle and start meeting people.

So I wandered from group to group, trying to figure out how I could pitch myself to a project. I had EECS/BIO and HARDWARE/DEVICE DESIGN scribbled on my name tag, and was hoping to find someone that could use some hardware design in their project. As I schmoozed with physicians and entrepreneurs, it became obvious to me what their problems were — they wanted bigger, better data. Data that was continuous instead of discrete; data that was convenient to access, data that could give them quantifiable results and diagnosis rather than subjective interpretations. So I ventured from group to group, pitching my services as a ‘data accumulator’ — tell me what data you want, and I’ll find a way to accumulate it.

It was at this point that I met Verena, Wael, and Sean. Verena did neuroimaging, Wael was a neurosurgeon, and Sean was a neuroscience PhD at BU. Chatting with them, they were discussing how neurological disorders are so difficult to treat because of how subjective most tests are. This means that patients often get mixed messages from different physicians, and even the same physician has trouble tracking a patient’s performance over time. I suggested using sensors to measure symptoms, and perhaps even having a mobile sensor that a patient could wear that could provide a continuous stream of sensor data (while the patient is using it). We were all liking the sound of this idea; we knew that we had a team.

The organizers called everyone back, and we did one more round of problems-solutions, with everyone keeping careful track of who was proposing what idea. Everyone was already storming to form their teams, and decide what they wanted to work on. After all of the ideas were proposed, we were off to the races. Everyone grabbed some team members and started hacking.

25 Feb 2012 15:00 — My team has spent about 3 hours straight just figuring out what the heck we’re going to do. We want to do quantitative measurements of symptoms to help physicians make better decisions. Ideally we want the device to be something that a doctor can send with the patient, or utilize items that the patient might already have (consumer electronics) so that the doctor can get data from the patient between visits. We brainstorm, and decide that Parkinson’s is a good place to start — there’s a huge number of people affected by it, and the symptoms (tremors/dyskinesia) are easy to detect with hardware that’s reasonably ubiquitous (accelerometers). So what if we made an accelerometer-based device that could store the information for the doctor? That’s brilliant!

Unfortunately, it’s been done. Crap.

What about using an iPad’s touch screen to measure tremors? We could have patients trace letters and measure their variations, and correlate that to their prescription — oh, wait, that’s been done too.

(Google Patent is your friend! “Six months in the lab will save you a day in the library”, so they say.)

Time is flying by, and while we have lots of ideas, we don’t have a concise product to make, an audience to sell it to, or why its different or better than what already exists. But at least we have a name — ParkinSync!

25 Feb 2012 18:00 — Still no concrete plan. The organizers call us back to reconvene, and share our initial concepts with the rest of the teams. Lots of great ideas; though it seems like no one has really made much progress either. For some teams, tonight will be a long, long night.

But not for us. We decide to reconvene in the morning the figure out our plan from there.

26 Feb 2012 9:45 — I arrived a bit later than I did the day before. The conference room seems emptier — maybe some teams got discouraged and decided not to continue on with their project? Again, time for go-juice and donuts. No way is my day going anywhere without caffeine.

We learn that the proposals are due at 15:30 today. That gives us about 6 hours to wrap up our project. Time to get to work.

26 Feb 2012 10:15 — Our group is entirely reassembled and we start coming up with ideas again. We think we’ve finally got an idea that’s worth pitching — make a mobile application that uses the phone’s accelerometer to measure the patient’s state. The doctor sends data to the patient to remind them to take their medication, they take a quick diagnostic test before they medicate, and the results get sent straight back to the doctor. After a few days of data collection, the doctor can review the data and send back recommendations to the patient — without having to schedule a visit.

The idea is great. It’s concise, narrow in scope, but easily extendable. And now we need a prototype and a business plan. We split up the group into two sides — the physicians (with their much more intimate knowledge of the field) come up with a marketing plan, and the software/hardware hackers start figuring out how we’re going to get this system working.

26 Feb 12:00 — Realization: Our product is a mobile app. None of us are familiar with the Android SDK or iOS. Crap.

So we start reading about the Android SDK and figuring out how we’re going to get an app that works.

26 Feb 2012 12:30 — Realize that learning Android by 15:30 is not going to happen. Mock up some pictures of what the app would look like and call it done.

Realization #2: Our product needs to send data back to the doctor somehow. The doctor is probably going to review the data through a web interface. We don’t have a web developer on the team.

Time to start reading through Django tutorials and see if we can set a database up!

26 Feb 2012 13:30 — Still no progress on Django. On the bright side, Django looks awesome and now I want to learn it! Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen by our deadline.

Solution: Mock up the website in Adobe Illustrator.

Wael, Verena, and Michael are making serious progress on our business plan and slides. But we still want something to show off as our prototype. I may not be a mobile app or web developer, but I sure as hell know how to use an Arduino and Python. Time to get to work!

26 Feb 2012 14:00 — Went back to my office, grabbed an arduino and an accelerometer (that I cleverly grabbed the night before in case I needed it), and got to work. Acquiring data of unsteady hand motion wasn’t too hard; it was actually data analysis and interpretation that was more difficult.

26 Feb 2012 15:15 — Success and making some pretty pictures of accelerometer data! We have a demo to show! The rest of the team is putting the last touches on our presentation, and we ship it out just in time at 15:30.

26 Feb 2012 16:00 — Presentations begin! There were around 15 teams at the end of the competition. Due to the large number of groups, we do 5 minute presentations with about a minute to do Q&A with the judges. Lots of great ideas, and lots of progress made — ranging from android apps meant to help you share information about and decide on a PCP; scheduling software that utilizes machine learning of patient habits to optimize the doctor’s schedule and minimize double-booking;

26 Feb 18:00 — Winners are announced!

Best Presentation: MyBetterFit
Most Disruptive Technology: ParkinSync!
Most Progress: Universal Prosthetics

Holy crap! We won Most Dispruptive Technology (and with it, a $1000 check for our team)! All of us are honestly surprised — we thought we had a solid idea, but didn’t think that we had developed it to the point of being a competitive idea. But apparently the judges thought we had a fantastic idea! After the awards were wrapped up, the team got together and started talking about our victory — and now phrases like ‘provisional patent’, ‘intellectual property’, and ‘clinical validation’ are being thrown around left and right. Are we going to start a company from this idea? What’s the next step?

We’re all pretty overwhelmed at this point, so we decide to meet in two weeks or so and talk about it once we’ve had a chance for the adrenaline to wear off. And that’s where we stand — with a great idea, and potentially taking the first steps to turning our idea into a marketable product.

I wish I could’ve shared more details about our project, but I’m going to be filing a provisional patent — I’ll be sure to talk about it once I get the patent done!

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~ by asymptoticdesign on 1 March, 2012.

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