Experiences from the 2018 Northeast Global Surgery Hackathon

Updated: Oct 19, 2018

What is a hackathon? “Hackathon” is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon.” A “hack” is a solution to an existing problem that is developed by intense innovative teamwork in a short amount of time, also known as “hacking.” Hackathons are commonly associated with programming and computer science but, in health hackathons, not all participants are coders. During the week-long Northeast Global Surgery Hackathon (September 7-9, 2018), students, trainees, and faculty from healthcare fields, public health, engineering, education, business, policy/government joined forces to tackle relevant and imminent challenges in the delivery, access and infrastructure of global surgery. The Global Surgery Students Alliance (GSSA) was excited to partner with MIT Hacking Medicine and the Harvard Program in Global Surgery and Social Change for this event!

Our PGSSC Research Associate, Joanna Ashby, and her team XMed

MIT Hacking Medicine is a student, academic, and community-led organisation that uses systems-oriented “healthcare hacking” to address challenges around innovation in healthcare. Since 2010, MIT Hacking Medicine has grown from a one-time event to a global brand, with more than 80 healthcare hackathons being hosted this year, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Quito, Ecuador. While MIT brought the “hacking” expertise, Harvard was happy to bring the “global surgery” inspiration.


Dr. Blake Alkire, Harvard Medical School Instructor in Otolaryngology and Harvard Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) faculty, started the weekend off with the Keynote on “Introduction to the Field of Global Surgery.” The problem statements were provided by a variety of Harvard PGSSC faculty and surgeons, including: Dr. George Dyer (orthopedic surgeon), Dr. Claire Karekezi (Rwanda’s first and only female neurosurgeon), Dr Raymond Price (general and trauma surgeon), Dr. Gregory Peck (trauma surgeon), Dr Salim Afshar (OMFS), Dr. Kee Park (neurosurgeon) and Dr. Paul Firth (anaesthesiologist). Dr. Price presented a strategic plan to improve breast cancer in Ghana. Dr. Dyer proposed a tracking system to monitor surgical equipment, collected through “Junk for Jesus” campaigns, that is sent to low-income settings but never used. Dr. Park presented three problems: the morbidity and mortality associated with pressure sores after spinal surgery, an app for patient images and notes in Cambodia, and a practical and cheap diagnostic tool for Epidural Hematoma. Dr. Firth described essential data points for a potential hospital outcome measurement system for Mbarara Hospital in Uganda, after highlighting a need to innovate the current paper-based patient and doctor documentation system. Following this, all members of the audience were then able to pitch any problems they had in mind.


What happens once the problems are pitched? A healthcare hackathon follows a four-phase approach:

  1. Identification

  2. Description

  3. Alteration

  4. Implementation

The identification phase sees the problem described as well as the initial formation of teams around problems. The description phase follows further problem discussions, where teams analyse some early high value points of intervention. Teams then design solutions to their selected challenges in the alternation phase. And finally, a concise summary of the challenge, stakeholder analysis, and solution are presented to conclude the hackathon weekend.

A hackathon team during the early alternation phase

One of our associates, Joanna Ashby, led the XMed team who designed an information collection and monitoring system using a biometric ID system, cloud computing and blockchain technology.


Dr. Greg Peck, RWJMS, a faculty and mentor member, assisting a team

Fantastic speakers and faculty members gave up their time during this weekend to tutor groups and lend their expertise. While some groups have started companies and raised more than $100 million in venture funding after such events, the real beauty lies within the opportunity to dive deep into a problem with a multi-disciplinary like-minded team, where expertise and skill sets are blended together through collaboration.


But at the core of the event, is the HMS Global Surgery Student Alliance (GSSA), launched by HMS third-year student Parisa Fallah, where the event was organized by the GSSA chapters of Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Medicine. GSSA has over 30 chapters in medical schools across the United States, and is linked to Incision – the international student global surgery network. This student network illustrates students’ commitment to global surgery, as well as highlights the importance of cross-cutting collaboration between all disciplines.


For more information, take a look at the Global Surgery Student Alliance (GSSA) Northeast Global Surgery Hackathon page where you can see the full list of problems, solutions and speakers from the weekend. For more detail, visit the MIT Hacking Medicine handbook, MIT Hacking Medicine, Harvard PGSSC, GSSA , and Incision – the International Global Surgery Network - for all upcoming events… and future hackathons!

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