Innovation, collaboration and highly creative computation: What Sectra saw at the hackathon

The sun, the moon and some bright minds were working overtime on the southern shore of Lake Erie the last weekend in September. The occasion was the first-ever Cleveland Medical Hackathon. The brainpower emanated from more than 175 multidisciplinary healthcare professionals organized into 21 teams, all competing to innovate technological solutions for healthcare challenges in just 24 hours’ time.

Their number included two outstanding representatives of Sectra.

Leo Bergnéhr is a Sweden-based Sectra software architect focused on increasing efficiencies in imaging IT. Ajith Jose is a Sectra software developer in the U.K. advancing solutions for cross-enterprise imaging management.

They were part of a 10-member team gaining excellent experience and two priceless takeaways: key learning opportunities and face-to-face networking openings. While the hackathon was organized around a true contest with a $3000 top prize, the overall scene was broadly collaborative—and participants included experts, students and end-users from medicine, law, technology and public health.

“It was good to work with people from different backgrounds, especially as our team worked together really hard and for a lot of hours doing some great things,” recalls Ajith. “That Saturday night, we worked well past 2 in the morning and didn’t get back to our hotel until nearly 3 o’clock. Then we had just three hours of sleep before we had to go back to finish our project by lunchtime.”

“Coming from a technical background, it was really intriguing to me,” adds Bergnéhr. “All the technical people were very good at what they were doing and had done, and the differences in backgrounds and experiences made for a great mix. We got to see and hear a lot of different perspectives.”

The ABCs of a hackathon

By definition, a hackathon is a marathon event at which a select crowd of techies and power users—master “hackers,” if you will—gather to advance the state of computer programming. And fast. The inaugural Cleveland Medical Hackathon was a notably impressive happening of this kind, not least because it had no healthcare-specific precedent to draw from, yet it brought together some of the top organizations not just in healthcare but in all of business.

Major sponsors included Cleveland Clinic and AT&T. Organizing partners included University Hospitals and MetroHealth, both of which are affiliated with the medical school of Case Western Reserve University. The event was presented by Nesco Resource, a national recruiting and staffing agency headquartered in Cleveland and specializing in IT and engineering. And the frenetically paced program unfolded on the top floor of the Global Center for Health Innovation, home of the HIMSS Innovation Center, a meeting and technology space that is an innovative marvel in its own right.

For its part, Sectra was one of numerous high-caliber corporate supporters.

Magnus Ranlöf of Sectra’s imaging IT solutions section, a vice president of product development with numerous software patents to his credit, explains the company’s interest in sending people to the Cleveland Medical Hackathon.

“We believe in sharing knowledge and having dialogues in order to create the best solutions for our customers and for the patients of our customers,” he told imagingBiz. “Internally, the participation gives our developers a great chance to learn and contribute to a community within the healthcare IT domain. They will be able to share their experiences with others and bring new experiences back. This, we believe, can inspire us all to deliver even greater products in the future.”

The results may not be immediate, he adds, but the plan is to think creatively in assessing returns.

“These events,” he says, “can create seeds that grow to become future fundaments of our software.”

Dashing off a prototype

The project on which Bergnéhr and Jose worked grew out of an idea spurred by a teammate’s actual situation. David Kissinger, RN, director of business development for Accenture’s Sagacious Consultants firm, recently found himself wishing for a way to stay constantly current with the health status of his mother, who was in the care of a home healthcare provider. He asked, How about creating a mobile app to track consenting homebound loved ones’ vital signs, receive reports from their doctor appointments and get alerted to any emergencies?

Kissinger, a member of HIMSS’s public policy committee, is both charismatic and IT-savvy, according to the Sectra duo, so it’s not surprising the team quickly got behind his concept. They unanimously elected him CEO of the instant “company” named after the prototype app, which they dubbed Dash2Care.

The team’s members included a retired clinical lab scientist, a biomedical engineering student and a pre-med student who is also an engineer and an entrepreneur.

To make a case for the viability of Dash2Care, the team pointed out that more than 8 million U.S. patients are enrolled in home healthcare and other forms of long-term care. Anticipating various contingencies, they even built in a translation tool enabling use in multiple languages.

“I guess it could have gone a little better since the jury didn’t pick us for a prize,” says Bergnéhr with a soft chuckle. “But we listened to all the teams’ introductory talks Saturday morning and mingled with a bunch of other teams before joining Dash2Care.” Which is to say that they have neither complaints about the process nor regrets about their choice of team.

On the contrary, what they do have are new learnings, contacts and inspiration to excel. “There were a couple of companies participating in a mentoring role,” says Bergnéhr. “Along with the leaders of the hackathon, the mentors provided a lot of data access points and showed us a great many resources we could use.”

At the same time, the Sectra participants were two of the most experienced technical people on their team. “We got to mentor as well as get mentored,” says Bergnéhr, “and we were able to help mediate the discussions on what would be good to include in the prototype.”

“I enjoyed getting the end-user’s point of view,” says Jose. “We got to see how the doctors and other people at the hospital see the data, and we heard about what they want to get out of their systems. There were good ideas on how to make things more practical for the clear benefit of patients as well as patients’ families.”

View slides from Dash2Care’s presentation.

Humble beginnings, ambitious aims

If the Cleveland Medical Hackathon had a founder and first master of ceremonies, it was James Krouse of Nesco Resource. He’s humble and thus reluctant to take credit, but the idea for the event clearly began with his past involvement in hackathons involving industries other than healthcare.

After visiting the HIMSS Innovation Center, Krouse looked up William Morris, MD, associate CIO of the Cleveland Clinic. They spoke briefly, both agreeing that a hackathon would be a great thing for both U.S. healthcare and their beloved city. And why not? In less than a generation, Cleveland went from being provincially derided as “the mistake on the lake” to earning worldwide respect as a dynamic center of innovation and excellence in healthcare.

Together they got in touch with HIMSS’s John Paganini, inquiring about use of the center. He was all for it and ended up playing a key organizing role. They also tested the hackathon idea with some of the exhibitors they’d seen there. Most gave quick buy-in. One of these was Sectra.

Krouse told imagingBiz that, along with showcasing Cleveland and advancing healthcare technology, his overall goals are very big-picture.

“When you do something like this, the obvious thing you hope for is that some thinking comes out of it that, for lack of a better way to put it, helps people,” he says. “We are all in the business, in one way or another, of helping people lead healthier and happier lives. So an obvious outcome I’m hoping for is that some ideas will come out of this event that help make people’s lives better.”

Stephen Behm, director of technology management for University Hospitals and a member of the event’s organizing committee, came away impressed with the creativity of the teams as well as the depth and breadth of the deliverables.

“I was surprised at the level of on-the-ground, real-world problem solving,” says Behm. “This wasn’t a big theoretical exercise. It was about identifying issues and trying to find solutions. I was pleased to see so much energy being spent on solving real problems that real people are facing every day.”

Krouse, Behm, Ranlöf and Jose all hope to see a second Cleveland Medical Hackathon and many more to follow.

Ranlöf amplifies that wish. “These kinds of events happen on a regular basis,” he says. “There’s a good chance that, in the future, we will see more participation from Sectra.”