Upon first glance one wouldn’t expect Michigan medical students to participate in a hackathon, but this past weekend, University of Michigan students and faculty of all fields participated in the Healthcare Communication Hackathon to innovate for improved health communication. The event was hosted by CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, a U-M alum, and the Gupta family.

Saturday morning, participants heard from keynote speakers Gupta and Jeff Arnold, founder of WebMD and Sharecare, a smartphone application for health and wellness.

Gupta began by discussing his own media and health communications experience, and noted many of the participants likely had ideas for their hackathon projects already.

“I think that many of you may come with some problems you want to address,” Gupta said. “They could be things like how to handle communications in the middle of a war zone, transparency of costs in emergency rooms, or could be the stigma of mental health. Whatever it might be, there’s nothing that’s not possible.”

Gupta also urged participants to consider the past, present and future of health communications to find solutions that can be successfully implemented.

“I think that health is going to look very different in the future,” Gupta said. “For people trying to access health care, it really feels like a black box to them, if they can access it at all. It’s something that often leaves patients disgruntled. It doesn’t need to be that way.”

Gupta stressed the importance of learning from other countries’ health care systems to improve the United States’. He spoke of his experiences traveling to six different countries to explore their systems, and defined health as a common denominator that translates across borders to all people.

“When I cover conflict in Syria, I am acutely aware of the fact that there are many people who can’t identify where Aleppo is on a map,” Gupta said. “But they do understand what happens when a family is suddenly finding a parade of bombs coming down on their city and what it does to them, what it does to their families, to their well-being, to their hope for their future. Those are things that are common denominators.”

After sharing his experiences, Gupta introduced Arnold who talked about his company Sharecare, and how it uses digital technology to connect patients with health care providers, reaching people through partnerships with Oprah, Dr. Oz and the Discovery Channel.

“We are the digital ally of health care,” Arnold said. “If Uber can connect a rider and a driver, how can Sharecare or a similar company connect a patient with a provider? So we went and got health care systems across the country to invest in Sharecare.”

Arnold also discussed the future of health care and opportunities for careers in health communications.

“There’s billions of dollars going into digital health,” Arnold said. “As investors are looking at this as the last sector to be disrupted. If Airbnb can disrupt hospitality and Uber can disrupt transportation, how can we disrupt health care and deal with health in a similar way we deal with all other areas of our life?”

Following the keynote speakers, each Hackathon participant gave a short pitch on the challenges in health communications they were interested in solving and their main areas of expertise. After these pitches, participants formed teams themselves.

30 teams presenting their pitches to three judges at the Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building.

Each presentation was allotted a two-minute time slot concluding with questioning from judges. The serving competition judges included U-M Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani, Emergency Medicine professor Kevin Ward, Director of the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation John Ayanian and Robert Yoon, a CNN political journalist and Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow.

Wayne State Medical student Urvashi Katiyar and LSA junior Kunsang Namdol developed an interactive game for children similar to Farmville and Club Penguin, in which kids can note their health habits for rewards. They came up with the idea for this when they noticed popular computer games were not encouraging children to be active.

“Kids are already playing these games but these games are not making them active,” Katiyar said.

Pharmacy clinical instructor Paru Patel worked with a team that developed “Project Check,” which aimed to establish community kinship engagement in Detroit regarding major health challenges in the area.

Patel responded to a judge’s question regarding plans for interactive tools with potential customers by describing the team’s plan to connect people, not just teach them.

“Once we identify what the health issue is, we’ll look to see what different resources are out there so when we are educating these patient advocates and these community advocates, we’re not expecting them to teach other people, but to connect them,” Patel said.

Other presentations included an app supporting women with pregnancy-related issues, a medical thread application translating medical communication to documentation, one helping Syrian refugees with health-related issues and a social justice effort to help assist with closing the health information gap, such as information regarding the Flint water crisis.

The team We Found, which used algorithms to detect weak links to research a patient many may not think to look for, was awarded the Best Presentation award, an audience-polled award. Most Creative was awarded to Virtual Visit, which allowed for virtual-reality patient visits to hospitals. Most Pragmatic was awarded to NICU Dashboard, a medical information dashboard for families with children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Highest Potential Impact was awarded to Spool, a communications platform that delivers health information to patients in real time.

After the presentations, Sanjay and Rebecca Gupta hosted a Q&A portion with the audience. Sanjay responded to a question regarding his continued practice with neuroscience, saying his love for his field is what drives him to continue his work.

“Neuroscience was really my first love,” Sanjay said. “I really thought that the way I would think about it in my mind was … it’s still really tangible to me. There is a certain concrete gratification you get from practicing medicine.”

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