WSJ: 'Hackathons' take off in health care

Can all-night problem-solving sessions change medicine?

Problem-solving sessions called "hackathons"—all-night problem-solving sessions popular in the computer software industry—are now being used to address issues in health care, the Wall Street Journal's Amy Dockser Marcus reports.

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A recent event called Hacking Medicine's Grand Hackfest hosted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) boasted more than 450 attendees who spent an entire weekend developing potential solutions to issues surrounding:

  • Diabetes;
  • Health IT;
  • Global health; and
  • Rare diseases.

According to the Journal, well-respected providers such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital have also sponsored such events, while MIT has held health-centered hackathons worldwide.

The fast-paced problem-solving approach fostered by hackathons is a change for the industry, which usually relies on long-term experiments and ongoing research. However, Elliot Cohen, who helped begin MIT Hacking Medicine, said, "We are not trying to replace the medical culture with Facebook culture," adding that the group is trying "to blend" the cultures together.

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Still, even hackathon supporters are wary of the events' abilities to solve many of the industry's problems overnight. Yale School of Medicine professor Harlan Krumholz said that although he supports the efforts, improvements in the health care arena "require a long-term commitment, not just a weekend" (Dockser Marcus, Wall Street Journal, 4/4).

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