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MIT sets sights on open-source mHealth during innovation event

By Jennifer Bresnick

The MIT Media Lab’s eleven-day Health and Wellness Hackathon is not your average gadget exhibition.  Bringing together eighty participants from around the world, the annual event, which was held in January, is designed to inspire new ways to fix an age old problem: how to use technology to prevent illnesses before they start.  Focusing on the use of standardized, interoperable, open-source platforms, the six teams spent nearly two weeks thinking up apps and home medical devices that would tear down proprietary software barriers and help patients take charge of their healthcare.

“The tradition in health care technology is, ‘this is our device, we make our own software,’” says Dr. John Moore, who organized the event. “The goal is to connect that bit of knowledge to the rest of your health experience.”  With myriad consumer devices and thousands upon thousands of mHealth apps each built on their own individual platforms, it isn’t enough to download a pedometer for an iPhone or clip on a blood pressure monitor.  The devices need to talk to each other – and ideally, talk to a physician as well.  The best way to accomplish that is to model the software on widely accepted engineering standards. “Working from a common platform takes an extra effort to build, but it ensures that the prototype will be something that has legs,” Moore says.

In the four years since the hackathon started, big companies have jumped on board, sponsoring the event with cash incentives.  Recognizable names like Kaiser Permanente, Pfizer, and Humana have gotten involved, either sending competitors or providing donations to help bring concept models to life.  Business specialists were attached to each team to guide them through production while encouraging “blue-sky” thinking without a negative, profit-based atmosphere.

The ideas coming out of the 2013 event focused on using remote monitoring to send data to healthcare providers or caretakers, helping patients become more connected while retaining their independence.  The award for best user experience went to an app that encourages HIV patients to take their medicines by asking users to upload a photo to their cell phone.  “Each morning, that image starts out fuzzy; the goal of the game is to sharpen it over the course of the day, based on adherence to the patient’s medication schedule,” reports Fast Company.  Data is sent to the patient’s physician using Bluetooth to keep caregivers in the loop.

Other teams created a coffee mug for Parkinson’s patients that tracks tremors to identify how well a medication regimen is controlling symptoms, and a pill bottle that sends a text message reminder when a patient forgets to take their prescriptions.

“Healthcare is in crisis,” states the MIT announcement for the event.  “Every year we spend more and get less. Patients are motivated to be involved, but they are consistently undervalued and marginalized. Current efforts in consumer health are fragmented and fail to leverage a common infrastructure to promote each other’s success through positive feedback. They spend most of their time solving the same problems over and over again. As a result, their ability to empower patients is limited.”

Patient engagement is a pressing issue for physicians looking to attest to Stage 2 and Stage 3 Meaningful Use in the coming years.  The EHR Incentive Program will require patients to use online portals, interact with their physicians by email, and eventually provide their own data – like the information collected by these prototype devices – to the physician for inclusion in their personal health record.

mHealth tools like the ones the MIT participants have dreamed up are projected to save billions in productivity, travel, and administration costs over the next decade, and are a growing segment of the health IT market.  As technology continues to evolve and more innovations make waves with consumers, devices that can communicate with each other and with EHR systems will be the big winners for developers and patients alike.




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