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My 4 Learnings From My First 'Hackathon'

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Medicine is a competitive team sport. It’s true – we all know it. It brings together a group of “Type A” personalities and jolts them into a high stakes game – literally life-altering in many respects. So, when the American College of Physicians (ACP) partnered with MIT’s renowned Hacking Medicine program to bring a four hour Hackathon to the Internal Medicine Meeting 2019, there were many enthusiastic players ready and willing.

MIT Hacking Medicine’s mission is to infect, energize, and teach health care entrepreneurship and digital to allow problem solving in health care delivery. The American College of Physician’s mission is to enhance the quality and effectiveness of health care by fostering excellence and professionalism in the practice of medicine. This partnership is only natural – the bright minds from medicine meeting the bright minds of industries such as business, tech, and design. I was thrilled to participate in the coming together of these exceptional organizations.

The call for “forward-thinking health professionals, engineers, designers, developers, and technologists” was disseminated many months prior to the event. The specific task was to “develop interdisciplinary hacks (solutions) to improve clinical workflows.” So, being accepted was the first step of this adventure.

With my morning coffee in hand, I walked into the convention center exhibit hall. As I waited for the event to begin, I wondered to myself – do I belong here? After all, I have no background in business, tech, or design. (Yes, this is a version of imposter syndrome). I did not get much time to ponder because the event started and the first question of the audience: How many of you have a background in business…tech…design? I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was in good company – with the exception of few participants, the majority came without any prior experience. We were all novices together. I suppose our drive to find a solution to the health care industry’s problems was the only qualification we needed.

And so the Hackathon started.

A brief description of hackathons: it is a blend of words “hack” and “marathon.” It is an event hosted as an intense one-day, multi-day, or few hours event in which individuals of diverse expertise come together to intensively collaborate on solution finding.

MIT's Hacking Medicine program leverages this approach to resolve the very problems that affect patients and clinicians on a daily basis. They have hosted 155 events in 25 countries worldwide! Indeed their experience in running these events is significant and their approach is seamless.

Unlike other Hacking Medicine events, the ACP event was somewhat challenging – in roughly four hours, we were tasked to identify a problem, organize into a team of 6–7 members, build a solution, and then pitch the idea to a panel of judges. Yes, all that in a little under 240 minutes.

This half-day event was perhaps one of the most engaging events I have attended at the ACP meetings over the last five years. Why? It took the best of quality improvement strategies and integrated rapid iteration to build the sense of urgency. Some takeaways:

1. Identifying the problem: the emphasis on identifying and specifying the problem was aptly the first, second, and third steps at this Hackathon. Many quality improvement sources refer to identifying and specifying the problem as the most important part of building the larger SMART-AIM (Specific, Measureable, Attainable/Achievable/Applicable, Relevant, and Timely). A large proportion of our time was spent on narrowing the scope of our problem (prescription drug cost transparency). Each of the questions brought to light by my team members was relevant, thoughtful, and insightful. Takeaway: spend large proportion (30-50 percent) of time during team meetings on identifying the problem at hand to avoid premature closure.

2. Building your team: our team was truly inter-professional – it represented primary care physicians, administration in quality, hospitalists, pulmonologists, and clinical pharmacists. The teamwork was fantastic — each of us believed that this problem affected our patients and the system at large in more ways than appreciated. Our diverse perspectives and experience deepened our understanding about scope of the problem and breadth of possible solutions. Takeaway: include a member who may not be in the “inner circle” when in team or solution meetings and encourage their participation.

3. Pitching a solution: in medicine, we are problem solvers — hence, we gravitated to the profession choice and this hackathon specifically. When I pitched the problem, I purposefully did not have a solution in mind. In the hackathon, solutions must be novel and “hacks.” To achieve this, team members need to free their creativity to explore all possibilities, rather than focus on what is available at hand. Takeaway: keep room for creativity and “outside of the box” thinking in meetings designed to identify solution.

4. Pitch the idea: we were allowed to only present for 90 secs and limit slides to three. Amazingly efficient, right? Having to boil down the solution to an elevator pitch is absolutely genius. It keeps the focus on the problem and high level solution – details are meant to be ironed out during the meetings. I think this allows stakeholders to utilize time in asking questions and allowing the possibility of a solution to percolate. Takeaway: To set a high level of urgency and building buy-in, keep slides to a minimum and pitch very concise – leave time and creative room for questions.

Alas, my team did not win the competition for our novel idea. As I look back at this event, I ask myself, "Would I come back next year?" Here is my answer – I looked into attending other MIT Hacking Medicine events and found a few that I would happily attend in a heartbeat. This is an activity that rejuvenates the spirit by allowing room for creativity and problem solving – two things that I enjoy. If you are similar to me, then check out ACP and MIT Hacking Medicine events near you. Remember, there are no prerequisites – only enthusiasm. And, plan to attend IM2020 – it is worthy of your time!

Ankita Sagar, MD, MPH, is a primary care physician and the Director of Ambulatory Quality for the Medicine Service Line at Northwell Health. She is also an assistant professor at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. She is currently the chair for the NYACP’s Early Career Task Force. She is passionate about public health policy and advocacy. Outside of work, Ankita loves spending time exploring her Brooklyn neighborhood with her husband and dog, Ladoo.

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