Hackathon Generates Ideas to Change Pediatric Healthcare Delivery

A pandemic can’t hold great ideas and solutions at bay, especially when it comes to improving healthcare for young patients. In fact, the coronavirus environment is generating a new slate of tough challenges to solve if we’re to successfully navigate today’s world.

Getting to the right answers is about creating an opportunity for smart people to share ideas and work together. And when safer-at-home guidelines limit in-person gatherings, we turn to online resources and create a virtual experience.

That was the cornerstone of the first virtual Valley Children’s Hackathon 2020, which explored “Rethinking Pediatric Healthcare: Innovations for Our ‘New Normal.’” Occurring Oct. 23-25, this three-day event was held in partnership with Microsoft and hosted by the Innovation Lab.

For the past decade, hackathons have been an ingenious way to brainstorm, refine and develop valuable solutions. These are impressive community activities, with participants sometimes working almost around the clock, fueled by caffeine and midnight pizza, because you never know when that “a-ha!” moment will strike. A virtual hackathon largely mirrors that experience, just in a digital environment so we don’t miss a beat in asking “what if?” And finding better ways to care and treat newborns, children and teenagers is a great motivator in continuing to reimagine the future, even in a pandemic.

As with a general hackathon, our activities kicked off with 60-second pitches – in this case, primarily from Valley Children’s clinicians – on a problem they’ve encountered. Participants then chose what team they want to support, based on what interested them and perhaps the skills they could offer. Over the next 48 hours, participants dropped in and out of breakout rooms as they brainstormed, with a common theme of “what if” as they moved closer and closer to their final recommendation. The hackathon culminated with a presentation session, where teams demo their products for the judges panel.

Most importantly, Lab events such as this hackathon and “Shark Tank” pitches allow us to come at challenges in innovative ways and streamline getting solutions into place. They generate a culture of innovation as they create a bridge between challenges that clinicians experience in the hospital and at the bedside with individuals who have unparalleled experience in coding, processes and applicability in the business world. In their daily work, these groups of talented individuals likely would never cross paths. At their fundamental level, hackathons bring in coding and technology to generate a product, such as software or a mobile app, that speaks to a problem. By tossing problems and problem-solvers together for this limited window, we can strip away some noise, dive deep into root issues and surface with in-the-moment solutions that have amazing traction.

At the end of the event, the top projects also moved one step closer in bringing solutions to the marketplace, as these ideas can help to improve the lives of pediatric patients and their families. By closing that gap between real-world problems and potential answers, a hackathon delivers a rapid start on getting effective solutions out not only for our hospital partners but the broader healthcare market.

We started with 12 problems pitched. Teams aligned around six projects, which included hospital staff screenings during the pandemic, connecting youths managing the same major health issues, and an app to help parents and guardians safely install car seats.

Solving real problems

Having technology leaders from Microsoft and Amazon delivered a new level of technical insight on what’s available in the industry, what’s in development and what’s feasible from a business and commercialization standpoint. They brought a wealth of knowledge from within their organizations and across the market, particularly from participating in other hackathons. While judges were encouraged to maintain neutrality, they spent time with teams to provide counsel and steer them to consider other routes more aligned with business and healthcare trends.

We couldn’t have done this without the unique contributions of our judges: Jeff Fattic and Molly McCarthy, Microsoft; Joseph Shonkwiler, Amazon Web Services; Ellen Herlacher, LRV Health; Dr. Cesar Santos and Kevin Shimamoto, Valley Children’s Healthcare; and Larry Stofko, Innovation Lab.

More than 120 people registered to participate. That included nearly 20 individuals from affiliated medical centers, universities and technology firms provided mentorship to the teams as they prepared to present their potential products and solutions. The hackathon also aimed to enhance the culture of innovation within Valley Children’s and the surrounding Central Valley of California.

Bringing ideas to reality

In addition to vying for cash awards, these teams benefit from the knowledge and experience of our Lab team in bringing great ideas to the healthcare marketplace. With every hackathon, we follow up with each project. In this case, we will talk through how to refine the idea for adoption by Valley Children’s or even steps to move the idea along the product development pipeline and into potential commercialization.

Winning the top award ($1,000) was “Blood Shopping on a Budget.” This team, which included Valley Children’s Pediatric Resident Dr. Karen Wong and student UC Irvine and the University of Chicago, built a computer program to help improve how clinicians order blood draws for labs.

As Dr. Wong noted after the hackathon: “The event was incredibly fun. I’m excited to join the Innovation Lab in coming up with a working prototype for us to try out. Can’t wait for next year’s Hackathon.”

This was the third hackathon we’ve hosted in 2020, following an in-person event in February and a one-day “mini” hackathon over the summer. Our Lab team is continuing to review those ideas.


Do you have an idea on how to improve pediatric healthcare in the post-COVID environment? Contact the Lab to learn more and speak to someone from our team.