Hacking Pediatrics: Boston Children’s Hospital’s Innovation Initiative

Added on Feb 13, 2018

By Andrea Fitzgerald, Staff Writer

What do you get when you lock pediatric health care providers, patient experience advocates and technology whizzes in a room for two days with nothing but a list of problems to solve and a deadline? A pediatrics “hackathon”—and dozens of innovative solutions for addressing pain points in pediatric care delivery, which is the goal of the Hacking Pediatrics team at Boston Children’s Hospital.

With five years of pediatric hacking experience under their belts, this innovative team of self-proclaimed “tech nerds” continues to promote the value of disruptive innovation. Proud of its heterogeneity, the group is led by Kate Donovan, Education Innovation Technology Coordinator, and Dr. Michael Docktor, Clinical Director of Innovation, Director of Clinical Mobile Solutions and pediatric gastroenterologist. Rounding out this diverse team is Margaret McCabe, RN, Director of Nursing Research for Medicine Patient Services, and Leila Amerling, Program Manager of the Innovation Accelerator Program.

Wondering how innovations from the consumer technology world could be applied to health care, they looked to their neighbors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for inspiration. Ultimately, they discovered the hackathon concept pioneered by a team of innovators out of MIT called Hacking Medicine. Founded in 2011, Hacking Medicine comprises MIT students and community members aiming to accelerate medical innovation by carrying out marathon events that bring people from seemingly disparate areas—business, entrepreneurship, engineering, design and health care—together to brainstorm and then prototype a solution in 48 hours or less. In collaboration with Hacking Medicine, the Children’s team adopted the same approach to address specific pain points in pediatrics for their first hackathon in 2013. Topics included managing chronic diseases, accessing medical records, scheduling appointments and improving medicine adherence with apps and wearable devices.

“Whatever the health care issue, the focus is often on the patient and family back in the community, and what tools can make the transition from hospital to home easier,” McCabe noted about the running theme of their hackathons. In the first two years, innovative solutions that won awards included Pill Square, an app that uses gaming techniques to make medication adherence easier for kids and parents; ReadySetGo, an app to increase parent readiness for discharge and lower readmissions; Genetiscripts, a database of patients’ genetic data to provide clinicians with important information when prescribing drugs; and BreatheSMART, a cap, app and dashboard to track inhaler use in asthmatic children.   

In subsequent hackathons, they made an effort to continuously improve upon the concept and adjust to the needs of community members. The team curated the hackathon time frame to 24 hours and partnered with leading technology, design and health care companies including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Boston Scientific and CVS Health to provide a resource that could transform a one-day event into a long-lasting partnership. “Basically,” Donovan said, “we hacked our own hackathon.”

The biggest hack was adjusting their metric of success. “Initially, we thought we’d be helping innovators form startups. But then we began to appreciate that the greatest impact of these events was that we were exposing people to new ways of thinking, new types of people and new resources,” Dr. Docktor said.

One of the greatest challenges and successes of Hacking Pediatrics is encouraging clinicians to think of themselves as caregivers and innovators. Dr. Docktor mentioned a colleague of his—who would describe herself as “the least technologically savvy person in the world”—who had relied on an antiquated practice of getting recipes to patients with various food allergies. “She would literally copy index cards and pass them out to patients,” he said. Encouraged to attend Hacking Pediatrics’ first hackathon, she pitched this obvious pain point and, with the collaboration of engineers and designers, built an app coined RightByte that later became the tele-nutrition company KindredFood. “Now, my colleague who began this journey five years ago is among the most entrepreneurial and innovative clinicians I know,” Dr. Docktor said.

This opportunity is particularly important and exciting for clinicians at the bedside, according to Donovan and McCabe. “These clinicians may feel like they don’t have time for nerd talk or brainstorming or innovation,” McCabe explained. “Events and programs like hackathons, the Innovation Accelerator program and so many other opportunities at Children’s give them the permission to step back and think in a different way.”

Providing community members, patients and caregivers—from nurses to food service staff to “anyone who touches the patient experience,” Donovan stressed—with the support and resources needed to pioneer innovation is an extensive effort that has spurred new collaborations and cross-functional teams at Children’s. “Before we formed our team, Children’s had a burgeoning innovation group that was focused on building apps in the hospital, but there was still a need for community initiatives and patient advocacy,” Dr. Docktor said.

Hacking Pediatrics, in collaboration with the Martha Eliot Health Center and local schools, formed in part to fill this need, and devote their time and resources to educating children on important health care topics, technology and “tech stuff” like coding, according to Dr. Docktor and Donovan.

In addition to the Hacking Pediatrics events, the Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) offers resources to more fully engage clinicians to bring out their great ideas, help develop them and carry them to commercialization, Amerling said.

The IDHA has spearheaded initiatives like the Prodigy Bar, which offers open office hours for anyone with an idea to improve the delivery of pediatric care, and an internal development shop, which provides one-on-one time with developers, business analysts and clinical advisors at Children’s, Amerling explained.

The result is “an ecosystem” of clinical and technology experts driven by the desire to learn from existing consumer technologies and other industries—not to reinvent the wheel, Dr. Docktor added. “We’ve always been an innovative place,” he posited. “But historically, the word has been limited to clinical innovation—new surgical techniques, new drugs, those sorts of things. Now, we’re becoming innovators in consumer technology and software and even simple processes, and there’s this thing in the fabric of Children’s about innovating and questioning. What this means, at least to me, is that a handful of people at any organization can plant a seed change in their culture to be more supportive of innovation.”