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Combining health, tech and creativity at Hacking Health Toronto

By Andy Shaw

The three-day Hacking Health Toronto event held at the city’s MaRS Centre late last fall sounded more to the uninitiated like a continuing medical education course for pulmonary specialists than a high-energy collaborative for aspiring medtech innovators – all out to heal the healthcare system’s many ills – matched up with seasoned, willing-to-help mentors.

While more than a few angel investors also looked on, the “Hackathon” began early Friday evening with a pep-rally style pitch session staged by the Hackathon’s Montreal-based organizers and their 27 black-shirted volunteers. In quick succession, some 42 groups of dedicated researchers, healthcare organizations, new business start-ups, physicians, social workers, and other medtech creators of all stripes leapt to the stage to rapidly pitch their problem-solver in one-minute or less (drowned out by a behind-the-curtains DJ’s music if they went longer) and spell out the kind of help they felt they needed to develop their breakthrough further. From a MaRS centre auditorium full house of 406 Hackathon participants, the on-stage innovators called for designers, programmers, healthcare practitioners, engineers, privacy experts, marketers, data analysts, or even patients to step forward and help them out.

After all 42 ideas were pitched, the expert mentors in the audience got to choose which innovators they were going to team up with for the weekend.

And so, for much of the next 48 hours and well into both nights, mentors and supplicants alike armed themselves with laptops, calculators, whiteboards, notepads, etc., and collaborated away at circular tables. At each, the common goal was to come up with a mock-up, model, or prototype that would not only solve a front-line healthcare problem, but also be transformed into a workable “demo” by Sunday noon, which in a two-minute on stage presentation would win the hearts and minds of the six Hackathon judges. They, in turn, would then dole out the coveted prizes offered by the Hackathon’s impressive list of sponsors.

In all, 19 Hacking Health Toronto sponsors or partners participated by offering prizes, mentoring the Hackathon pitchers, and of course keeping an eye out for innovations that might help their own causes or organizations.

At least one mentor among the sponsors was there to also help the 42 presenters woo the Hackathon judges. In a MaRS Centre ante-room briefing, Ian Chalmers of Pivot  Design Group, counselled: “Make sure you let the judges know in your presentations that you are practical. Explain how the idea is going to get funded. Is it a paid-for app, or is it pay-per-use? Do you hope to get sponsorship from a hospital or agency, do you hope to get seed capital, and that kind of thing.”

By late Sunday afternoon at the Hackathon’s wind-up, a weary but still eager MaRS Centre audience sat hushed to hear who had won what.

Among sponsor prizes, The Women’s College Highest Fruit Award went to three bidders for initial further development at the hospital:

Alo: a seven-member team of independent engineers, a physiotherapist, a recent med school grad, a website designer, and a gadget-guy technician who pitched a cloud-based solution to the problem of transferring complex care patient information to multiple healthcare providers, and which also enables patients to update their own medical histories.

Dignity Talk: a five-member team lead by a respiratory therapist who proposed a web/mobile application called “Choose Your Own Adventure” for planning your own and more agreeable death. Their pitch pointed out: “Most people, when asked, say they’d prefer to die at home, free of pain and surrounded by loved-ones… (but) doctors don’t know what their dying patients actually value at the end of their lives … By default, many people die a highly medicalized death in an ICU. Because of cultural barriers, patients are being denied the choice of a comfortable, dignified death.”

S.O.S: a five-member team, including a registered nurse leader, a mobile app developer, a third-year university biology student, a bio-medical engineer, and a medical doctor with a doctorate, all connected with the Baycrest Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care – addressed the problem of poor patient-condition data capture during emergency transfers. Their answer: a fully automated system that constantly records the patient’s condition, then consequently prioritizes the urgency and the actions called for, and ends up generating a complete report of what was done and why.

Women’s College will have these three teams put through a human-design workshop with their design experts, clinicians, and patients all helping out. Afterwards, each team will present their now more refined and workable idea to the hospital’s senior management. One will then be picked for a full, three-month trial at Women’s College.

The Beworks behavioural change prize went to BLU+, a seven-member team led by an organizer and mentor who is also a patient, assisted by a an art-and-design college grad, a pharmacy student, a .NET developer, a marketer, a health informatics specialist, and digital user interface designer.

Their aim: to produce a “human maintenance manual” containing nothing less than “a detailed interactive timeline of things you need to do to stay out of the hospital, from age zero to 100.”

Women’s College winner S.O.S. also got the nod as the best solution for clinical applications; PatientFlow won again as best for health administration; and the best for consumer health and patient application went to the My Baby and Me Passport pitch.

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