Hacking Medicine

Max. Go to this!!!!!! Serious!!! Register now. Please. U Wont regret!!

That, and a link, comprised the email I got from brother-in-law(-to-be) telling me about a conference called Hacking Medicine that took place last weekend. I had my doubts about getting in, but I applied, and somehow I was accepted. Long story short, I got to spend two days with a roomful of incredibly smart and awesome people at the MIT Media Lab.

Long story long, hacking originated at MIT in the 60s. They were not using computers to commit crimes; that activity is properly known as “cracking” and its practitioners as “crackers”. (In a pinch, “cybercrime” will do.) But thanks to movies like WarGames (1983) and, ahem, Hackers (1995), the public’s definition of the word hacker was tarnished. It properly means the act of tinkering, understanding a system deeply, and making it perform better. A hack is a clever, unexpected, and inventive solution, and a compliment: “that’s a hack”. Hacking involves customizing, optimizing, and hence breaking down all the pretty exteriors of something, which leads to a “hacked together” product, or a “hack job”. A true hack may seem ugly from one perspective but has some redeeming value in another. Another definition collision* arises with “hacksaw” and “hack and slash” games, both of which have mind-numbingly repetitive conotations. Instead, a hack requires creative, strategic thinking, and breaking the right rules. When you break the wrong rules, you become a cracker. (The public probably didn’t pick up on this subtle connection when they redefined “hacker”, but rather just stole a word associated with those computer people, back before everyone under sixty was a computer person.)

*A collision is when two or more things that ought to be kept separate try to occupy the same space at the same time, with destructive results. A “name collision” is what happens when a programmer (or more likely a team of programmers) uses the same name for two different things, and the computer (compiler) doesn’t know which one they meant. I originally considered using that term in the above paragraph, but since it already has a precise technical meaning, I decided not to make a meta name collision.

So how do you hack medicine? I have three MDs in the family (if you count that brother-in-law), and it’s one thing to go to medical school and do internships and fellowships and play the game of the medical industrial complex. This was a conference about not playing the game. This was a conference about doing something radical.

How radical? Some of the many speakers represented companies that empower their clients to take charge of their own healthcare. For example, AgaMatrix lets diabetics check their blood sugar using a beautifully-designed iPhone app and external hardware, and allows users to annotate each entry. Other companies are working to reform the existing system. In particular Athena Health is selling a suite of cloud-based management tools that allows a conventional doctor’s office to work more efficiently.

Saturday was filled by these sorts of speakers presenting their innovative strategy or technology, interspersed with too-short brainstorming sessions. The best of these turned into pitches to the entire group. Sunday was spent in teams developing these ideas and presenting them to the group.

There were a few standouts. Podimetrics (who does not seem to have a website yet) is working on sensors to tell diabetics to move their feet. The disease affects the nerves in such a way that patients will stand in ways that put undue pressure on certain parts of their feet, leading to completely preventable ulcers and amputations. Home Team Therapy had a working demo of the Microsoft Kinect tracking a person doing squats, balancing on one foot, and other physical therapy movements. Their team stayed up until 2AM learning C#, and days later they have a professional-looking website.

I’m confident both will go on to be successful startups (as were the judges, who awarded them and four others $1000 each). I considered joining both groups Saturday evening, but instead of dwelling on 20/20 hindsight, I’ll tell you about the group I joined, Validated Imaging. It’s a digital order system for medical scans, from the prescribing physician to the outpatient center’s radiologist, and back. The doctor places an order on a smartphone, tablet, or PC, which gets sent to the company’s servers and then to the imaging center specified. Under the current system, the patient is entrusted to carry a paper prescription, which may be vague, illegible, or for a different test than the patient specified over the phone. Even though today’s scanners produce digital images, they are faxed to the primary care physician whenever the office tech gets around to it. Under our system, they are sent digitally, automatically, and instantly. Doctors can even get a push notification that the results are in.

We spent a lot of time ironing out these sort of logistical and business details. Our presentation wasn’t great, even though we had a (barely) working demo of placing an order, sending it to a server, and receiving it. Nevertheless, Hacking Medicine was eye-opening experience. I met a lot of extremely perceptive, insightful, and well-educated people, and some of them are going to change the world. Hopefully I’ll be one of them.

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