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Stanford University School of Medicine

Medical innovation seminar brings global perspective to annual health++ hackathon

The second annual health++ hackathon brought together more than 220 engineers, designers, health care professionals, and business experts to Stanford this fall for a weekend of brainstorming and building solutions for unmet clinical needs in health care affordability.

Thirty project teams competed for $13,000 in prizes sponsored by Stanford departmental and industry partners, creating software, hardware, mechanical, and business model innovations ranging from mobile applications to ameliorate pediatric malnutrition in low-resource communities to artificial intelligence-based models to predict peripheral arterial disease from raw accelerometer data.

New this year, we invited 20 international students from universities across China and Japan to Stanford for an intensive, one-week medical innovation seminar during the week leading up to the hackathon.

Stanford ophthalmologist and entrepreneur, Robert Chang, MD, led the initiative, drawing inspiration from a series of five previous medical innovation seminars he hosted in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Brazil.

As a student organizer helping to blend the seminar and hackathon, three ideas stood out to me.

An educational twist on health care hackathons

The international students brought a diversity of engineering and design backgrounds, but few had exposure to basic interviewing and observational skills or privacy, liability, and financial perspectives necessary to succeed in a complex health care system. Through lectures and workshops led by Stanford Biodesign-trained faculty, the seminar served as an compact bootcamp, broadly covering just enough to demystify health care innovation.

Weekend hackathons often emphasize the rapid creation of solutions in a fast-paced, competitive environment. Naturally, organizers focus on improving metrics such as the number of startups or patents produced. But if reframed, health care hackathons can also provide a unique opportunity for project-based education. The one-week seminar introduced students to important principles of medical innovation from a theoretical perspective. The weekend hackathon then served as the arena for the students to apply theory to practice, solidifying their understanding.

A global mindset on medical innovation

The international students brought a much needed global perspective to the event, creating projects that drew directly from firsthand experience in low-resource settings. In addition to encouraging cross-cultural communication, pairing international and domestic participants enabled the creation of several innovative ideas for global health.

For example, after witnessing infants hospitalized due to rotavirus in clinics across Asia, a team of engineers from Japan and Stanford developed YourPacifier, a medical device to monitor the humidity of an infant's lips.

Likewise, in response to the high prevalence of visually significant cataracts in rural communities throughout China, a multinational team led by a Chinese clinician conceived CatSpotter, a low-cost mobile application to automate the diagnosis of cataracts from a smartphone picture.

A replicable model for democratizing knowledge

The medical innovation process is traditionally taught in-depth during a semester-long course or year-long fellowship. But for students with limited time and universities where curricula is not yet established, there exists a need for a replicable introduction to medical innovation. Chang hopes the seminar model, which blends lectures and workshops with a hands-on hackathon, can introduce the biodesign curriculum to students around the world.

"The goal is to reach as many students as possible," Chang said. "Instead of having students shy away from medical innovation topics that can be difficult to understand, we hope to democratize knowledge so that the next generation of innovators have the tools to tackle the many unmet needs in health care."

Jason Ku Wang is a senior from South Pasadena studying mathematical and computational science. He co-founded Health++, Stanford's first health care hackathon, and is interested in applications of computer science to medical practice. 

Previously: health++ hackathon aimed for affordability, innovation and Stanford doctors use biodesign training to spark health innovations in Brazil
Photo by Shivaal Roy

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