Attending My First Medical Hackathon at MedStart

I just finished my first hackathon ever, and I am exhausted. Starting on Friday, and continuing into Sunday afternoon, I can only admire those that can do the whole event with no sleep. But before I get into my thoughts and experience, I should give some background on the event.


MedStart Hackathon

For the past few years, Tufts School of Medicine has been hosting a hackathon under their organization MedStart that is partnered with the MD/MBA Program at Tufts. For those that aren't familiar with the concept of a Hackathon, it essentially boils down to giving teams a setting and a time set to bring their ideas together and create a product to demo to the event judges, and hopefully win whatever awards are offered. The key feelings of these events are a bit competition and self-challenge as you work in a team to accomplish multiple objectives with very little time. This years theme was how to rethink/disrupt MedEd, and that is how I found out about MedStart on Twitter when I saw them being broadcasted by those I follow and hashtags I follow.

What I Learned at MedStart

To be honest, I was really not sure what I was getting into. When I had applied to do the program, I was initially under the impression I would come to this event, work with other professors or educators in the realm of medical education, and spend the weekend thinking of new ways to teach students in and out of the classroom. Needless to say, when I realized that there was no one else attending from academia, and the only people in medicine really were just med students, and that the premise was to build a business idea and pitch it in 3 mins, I was unsure if I would return for the rest of the weekend, as I wondered what I would get out of it. But I did go back, and I learned alot!

Making a Viable Idea is Tough

Needless to say, this was probably the hardest part for me to grasp throughout the entire endeavor. I really didnt come in thinking of any ideas, and was expecting to learn from others. But listening to all of the ideas being pitched around by students, business minded individuals, and those outside of medicine was quite refreshing. Many of the ideas I had heard before, but they were refreshed, and looking for changes in the current landscape. I joined one team Friday, and it fell apart by the time I got back Saturday, and I then joined another team looking to disrupt how CMEs are done. This captivated me, as I really never thought about even changing such an item. Looking back, I wish I had more time to listen more closely to ideas that people had and talked more about them.


Team Dynamics is Key

The team I found myself with was quite fun. I learned alot from them, as none of them were medical and were a mix of business individuals and programmers. Listening to their thoughts on medicine was quite novel, and really showed me that alot of the training that goes into the healthcare system isnt well known by those outside of the medical silo. Not that its a bad thing, I think it gives the chance to get new ideas and to give a interdisciplinary feel to finding new ideas. However, if I ever did this again, I would try to find a programmer, designer, and business person I could go into such an event with beforehand next time. It was quite lonely going by myself and trying to find others at time to work with.

Technology/Wearables Isn't Everything 

A big emphasis was placed on using new technology coming to market in medical education. They event hosted Oculus Rifts, Samsungs VR version, Myo Armbands, Pebble Smartwatches, and a variety of other software, including IBM Watson. In the end, only 4 of the 19 pitches I believe integrated any of those devices into their pitches. I think it was a mix of lack of developers at the event, time to program, and understanding of how to really integrate such tools. Probably what fascinated me most in the pitch/demo session at the end of the hackathon is that the majority of teams did were presenting mockups or images of how they envisioned their product to work. The ideas were the selling point overall, programming and making them would come afterwards.


There is ALOT of Emphasis on Making it Big

I am an academic. I write, publish, teach, see patients, and get some sleep every now and then. The last thing on my mind is making a start-up and launching my own business. But, that is one resounding thing that stood out to me at this event, based on what alot of the speakers were saying. If I had to sum it up, it would be that "You can take an idea and make money from it," if you are willing to pour your heart and soul into it. But, as one presenter made clear, there were only 3 winners at this event (we were not one of them =P), and that failure is normal. But, I do like the slide one of the other presenters put up about failing and trying again...


Have Fun & Learn


I would do this again, because I really had alot of fun. I learned that students can be a good source of looking for new ideas to fix their problems, that good mentorship is key for success, and that you need to just relax and have fun. One of my partners was a programmer who attends all of the hackathons he can. And one thing that stood out to me when I asked him why he does these events, is that he "loved the challenge and opportunity to push" himself. I really respect that mentality, and he really did a great job programming our app mockup for out pitch.

Future Hackathons

If anything stood out to me, it is that I want to do more hackathons and challenges. I would be happy to be a participant if I had colleagues or a team to go into with, but I feel that if I am walking into such an event like this in the future, I would rather be a mentor. There were a few other participants older than me at this event, but most of the teams and others I worked with were younger, and still in school. That just really made me feel awkward at times. But nonetheless, I will endeavor to be more involved no matter what. For those looking for some events to get involved with, I was referred to MIT Hacking Medicine and ChallengePost as websites to find challenges/hackathons to attend. If you can think of any others, message me on Twitter or leave a comment, and I may make a list of medical hackathons in the future!