By, Ilan Levine
A couple months ago a group of us were all chatting in the conference room over lunch when someone mentioned the idea of a Hackathon – an event where a bunch of people form competitive teams and put their heads together to tackle a problem. Wait… hold up… we can spend a weekend solving problems? It seemed like this type of event was made for us, so we did some googling around and found out that, indeed, hackathons are real! We quickly formed a team and signed ourselves up.
MIT Alumni Association organized and hosted this particular hack with about 100 attendees. When the weekend of the event finally arrived, Sharon, Haley, Eliot, and Ilan hit the road for Boston. We walked in just in time for the opening reception where we heard from some thought leaders and hackathon veterans – you know, the people who have attended 100s of these types of events and know the drill.
Here is the gist of it: we were told to form teams and try to branch out by meeting others at the event who had not previously thought of their own idea. Being the planners that we are, we had already come up with a focus; we wanted to hack discrimination in healthcare. So, we set out to build our team and went back to our hotel for some late-night brainstorming (over some delicious Korean BBQ). The goal of the night, told to us by the organizers, was to hone in on the problem we were trying to tackle, narrow our focus, and identify who was affected by it.
Defining the problem:
This is much more complicated than you might think. It is easy to identify problem-areas in our society. It is much harder to break it down into something tangible: where you understand the specific issue to the point that you get a sense for why it is a problem, and who it is a problem for. We were tackling discrimination in healthcare, right? Well, we knew that many groups were discriminated against in this way (women, the economically-underprivileged, various minority groups, immigrants, anyone with a pre-existing condition, etc.), but as we discussed further we began to realize that every group had their own specific issues.
This is really less of a “step” and more of an action throughout the whole weekend. I mean, how are we supposed to solve the worlds problem without understanding the context? For research there was definitely a lot of googling and internet browsing, but the organizers of the event challenged us to get more personal – to talk to the stakeholders around the issue. Now, I must admit that I wished we actually had the time and resources to do this part justice. However, it was late on a Friday night and we had to spend Saturday brainstorming. We were able to talk to some doctors who happened to be attending the event and bounce some ideas off of them, refining our issue and beginning to think of solutions. This would have to do.
Saturday morning we regrouped early to begin exploring potential solutions. You know you really worked your brain when the final product is nothing like your first idea, and that is exactly what happened with us. By the end of the day we had gone from a meek plan – with no actual incentives to make it work – to creating a self-sustaining business model that brought those with the capability to make a positive impact together with those who needed help with each stakeholder personally benefitting from the connection.
There are a couple components to this, so bear with me as I break it out into 3 major points:
1. There are many disease types where there is a gap between those who suffer from it and those who are actually diagnosed.
Take chronic constipation, for example. Here is a disease that is slightly awkward for the patient, for obvious reasons, and is usually dealt with without seeking the advice of a medical professional. At the same time, there are drugs out there that could greatly help these patients if they were only diagnosed and given the appropriate prescription(s).
2. Pharmaceutical companies have budgets to help better market their products.
That’s right! These businesses know when their product is running into an issue like the one above, and they allocate money to try and close that gap. However, for lack of a better way, this budget will often go towards traditional marketing.
3. Under-privileged groups are most susceptible to not being diagnosed because it is harder for them to access healthcare from the get-go. Therefore, the gap is a result of unintentional discrimination.
With no regular visits to their primary care doctors, the likelihood that they will go undiagnosed dramatically increases. Not to mention that pushing on without receiving proper care can cause issues to escalate into emergencies, which ultimately makes treatment much more expensive.
So, we “created” a non-profit organization that links the three problems into a self-sustaining system. We called it P.A.C.T. – Provide Access to Care Today. The idea is that pharmaceutical companies would have a vested interest in funding the PACT initiative, setting up clinics and shelters so that underprivileged folks would have better access to care. It would be self-serving because these patients would inevitably be diagnosed, closing the gap and increasing drug sales. Furthermore, the non-profit would shield the process from being unethical.
All-in-all the weekend hack-fest was a total blast and a fun learning experience. We got to think outside of the box, collaborate with people we had just met, and pitch our idea in front of the entire group. One thing is for certain, this was just the first of many more Cognitive hackathons to come!