The Power of Hackathons in Health Care: HealthChangers Podcast

February 8, 2018

When you think of a hackathon, you might think of tech developers, engineers, and other IT professionals working on their computers solving coding problems. Hackathons at their simplest are problem-solving sessions with a lot of people, from different professional backgrounds, working across teams to share problems and brainstorm solutions.

Even someone’s personal lived experience with normal day-to-day problems presents a wonderful opportunity to mine for improvements and even create something new. It all counts! Some hackathons are focused on specific areas, others are open-ended. The energy of everyone working together creates a dynamic collaboration that allows time to think deeply about concepts that are hard to explore given the demands of our day jobs. Setting the time aside and offering all your professional and lived experience to collaboratively brainstorm can lead to the next big thing.

In this HealthChangers podcast episode, we’ll be speaking with two seasoned hackathon organizers, Dan Anolik and Northon Rodrigues, two engineers who are eager to make hackathons go mainstream as a way to improve the experience of health care for consumers.

You can listen to this episode with the player below, on iTunes or on Stitcher, or read the full transcript below.

Links and Resources

Leslie Constans (LC): Welcome to the HealthChangers podcast, presented by Cambia Health Solutions, where we share real stories of health care transformation from those experiencing it and those helping to make health care more personalized. I'm your host, Leslie.

Over the last several years, businesses and companies looking to innovate have turned to the idea of hackathons. Initially, hackathons were kind of extreme brainstorming session among software engineers who were trying to solve IT problems, but the concept has evolved and found a place in many fields, including health care.

My guests on the podcast work in the health care space and have a number of hackathons under their belts. Dan Anolik is a vice president of engineering at Cambia and Northon Rodrigues is with HealthSparq, a platform designed to help people make better choices about their health care. I'm so excited to have you both here. Welcome, Dan.

Dan Anolik (DA): Thank you very much. Thanks for having us here.

LC: You're welcome. Northon, good to have you.

Northon Rodrigues (NR): It is a pleasure to be here.

LC: Today, we're here to talk about this idea of hackathons and how a hackathon, in your experience with hackathons, has enabled you to solve problems in the health care system. First of all, can we just start off a little bit ... Maybe Northon, I know the idea behind this hackathon idea came from you, but tell us what is a hackathon.

NR: Well, it is a place where engineers can really unleash their creativity and have fun. We go and we see problems that we encounter day-to-day, but sometimes, when we're so busy, we cannot find a way to actually work on a solution, so this way, it's a way to just look at it over our organization and harness their creativity to solve some big problems.

Harnessing the Power of Hackathons

“[It] became a wildfire because the return on investment is so great and all the major innovations in the company came from the hackathon.”

LC: Tell us a little bit about how this hackathon idea came together. I believe you've done four or five of them now.

NR: That's right. The first one was interesting because the president of the company said, "You can do it, but you can do it during December 26th and January 1st" and in that, we had about 16, 20 participants and from then on became a wildfire because the return on investment is so great and all the major innovations in the company came from the hackathon.

DA: Yeah. I think one of the keys to running an innovative engineering organization today is giving lots of opportunities for ideas to come to fruition, right? You want to be able to reduce the friction that it takes to bring an idea from people's minds into the products.

There's a lot of ways that we look to do that throughout our engineering workflows, and one of the more visible ways are these hackathons, where we have a couple of times a year, where people get to just go all in on creativity, all in on bringing these ideas to life, and they help each other. They work on their teams, that you see people working across teams all the time and the energy is just really high, so it's a lot of fun to see what they bring to life.

NR: It's very interesting. When you look at the first hackathon, we had a bunch of individual people, engineers actually doing their own projects. Our last hackathon, like Dan was mentioning, we have completed across the floor. We have product engineering, sales, marketing, sometimes, all collaborating towards one idea. It's really amazing as a way not only to bring amazing ideas into the light but also as the greatest team building event we have in the company.

Pre-Hack Pitchfest Preparation

“What we did is we made it very disruptive. Instead of going to a special room…we did it right in the middle of the floor…put big mics and speakers, and so even those who weren't too terribly excited about it got excited.” 

LC: It sounds like you don't necessarily need technical skills to take part if you have marketing people or product people.

DA: Yeah. That's also something that's evolved over time with this hackathon. Hackathons out in the wild, outside of Cambia are often very strict about you build something and at the end of a couple of days or at the end of whatever the hackathon period is, you have some running code, and we've experimented a couple of different ways here.

Last few hackathons, prior to this, there was a mix of building things and also just creating product pitches and prototypes, et cetera. This time, we decided to actually split those. Before the hackathon itself, this time, a couple of weeks before, we had a pitchfest, which was a dedicated time where people presented on product ideas or ideas of things that you might do in a hackathon, and so a lot of the pitchfest was a mix of engineers and product folks and marketing, all types.

One of the goals of that was to actually recruit people for your hackathon team and help drive those ideas, so it gave time for people to stew on those ideas and then in the hackathon itself, we refocused on actually building those things, so the teams might be a mix of engineer, product, marketing, other folks, anybody that wants to help bring this idea together and drive it.

NR: Now when you look at pitchfest, the cool thing, what we did is we made it very disruptive. Instead of going to a special room or invite people, we did it right in the middle of the floor, in the engineering floor, and we put big mics and speakers, and so even those who weren't too terribly excited about it got excited because we could see the energy and the collaboration among all the team members.

LC: I want to go back a little bit and talk about that very first one and the idea for it. How did you, Northon, pitch the idea for a hackathon and how did you recruit people to take part in it? It sounds like maybe they had to bring their own ideas to the table.

Opportunities Work Outside Your Area of Expertise

“A common theme with hackathon is that people use the time to work in areas that they don't normally touch on their day job, so it's a great cross-training opportunity for that.” 

NR: I do remember how the idea started. I was probably reading a blog somewhere about a hackathon, most likely Facebook. I was like, "You know, we need to have our hackathon," and I talked to my vice president at the time and he was, "Absolutely. Go talk to the president," and the president said, "I can't have enough of this. This is so good. Go for it. Whatever you need," and we just started presenting the idea to the engineering organization and literally, each person brought in their own ideas. What I loved about the first hackathon, it really set the tone on the stage. For example, we had one UI developer. He's a front-end developer.

LC: What does that mean? What is a UI developer, for people who don't work in engineering?

NR: He works on the visual aspects of the interface. When you go to websites, you're going to see the buttons there and the interactions and the behavior of the program. He's our lead UI developer and during the hackathon, he said, "No. It takes us too long to get the application started."  He worked on the back end and he came up of an idea and learned how to do it and he wrote back-end code, and he was able to prove, where the application change takes 10 minutes to start, and he brought it down to about 30, 45 seconds, and doing the hackathon was great because he was completely exploring something new and doing something unexpected.

LC: That wasn't even part of his job, but he saw, "Oh, here's a problem that needs to be addressed that I have an idea for."

DA: Yeah, that's actually a common theme with hackathon is that people use the time to work in areas that they don't normally touch on their day job, so it's a great cross-training opportunity for that. This time, we're proactively recruiting across groups, "Hey, if anyone wants to learn about this topic and work on this with me, I could use some people," which is good, because just like anywhere else in the business, the more you know about what people do around you and the more familiar you are with that, you can do your job better and interact with that better and it also helps with mobility across the organization.

NR: Now Dan's very unique in the hackathon world because he's the only one, the only person here at Cambia, he doesn't even know what I'm saying, who was both a participant and the following hackathon, he became a judge.

LC: I heard that. I wanted to ask Dan about his dual roles, revolving roles in the hackathon. Tell us about how you got involved as a participant, which hackathon that was, and then later, you were the judge. What was that like?

DA: I guess it was the end of 2016 that I was a participant in our team. I had recently come in from the outside world that had some new ideas on how to change and build some things, and there was a lot of excitement for those ideas, so we had assembled a great team and we did quite well in the hackathon, so it was a lot of fun and it basically gave that project initial funding to go get started, which has snowballed into a lot.

Now working on the other side as a judge, I miss participating, to be honest. (Laughter). In some ways, it's a lot of fun, but it's even more fun to just help facilitate that many more people doing that many more creative ideas. There were so many good ones this last time.

It was actually quite interesting, I'd say, as a trend. Something Northon and I saw now is, a year ago, there were more changes to the products coming through in hackathon and I'd say, this time, there were more innovative ideas around just how we work, new efficiencies and how we work and how we up our general software developments game.

Your Lived Experiences Help Solve Problems

“You actually want to see what real people really have to say about these providers because what's a good fit for you isn't necessarily what's a good fit for somebody else.” 

LC: Do people bring in their own ... Obviously, they have their day-to-day jobs, but do they bring in their own experiences like frustrations with health care or with products that they use? Do you have any examples of that where people ... Either, maybe both of you have had that experience? You're shaking your head. Yes.

NR: Let's talk about the last one. We can go for every single hackathon, but the last one, we had one engineer who said, "I would like to go to a doctor that came from the top 10 schools, and I would like to change the way we search. I want to search for OBGYN that went to the top 10 schools," and so during the hackathon, that's exactly what he did. Here is his passion, like, "I want to go to a very specific doctor because I want to know how he was trained," and now we have something that can go into our products.

The one before that, we had ... It is so simple. Sometimes, it's amazing. Creativity doesn't have to be something huge. For our mobile offering is "Where am I? I need to enter my current address." Well, on a mobile device, you can just click your location services and have all in there, and then you can find all your doctors close to you, wherever you are, and that's a change we made to our mobile offering. We finished the hackathon. It was then released two weeks later, which is so amazing, that something is very simple, yet very profound on how people will use the application day-to-day.

LC: How about you? Any examples that you've heard of?

DA: Sure, sure. There's a number of examples I could think of. One of them is around reviews data. Within HealthSparq, there's a concept of reviews of a provider and we think of it sometimes as Yelp for health care, right?

LC: I was going to say that.

DA: Sure, sure. These aren't just standard number ratings. You actually want to see what real people really have to say about these providers because what's a good fit for you isn't necessarily what's a good fit for somebody else, right, so you want some content with a little more substance to it.

There's been quite a few extensions to that and after someone has actually seen a provider, prompting them for reviews, similar to what you might see in Yelp or Google of, "Oh, you went to this restaurant. Do you want to give us some feedback on that?" It can really help other people.

We provide cost transparency and cost analytics, so "What is this really going to cost me out-of-pocket?" There's been a number of innovations around "How do we make that more accurate? How do we make that more timely for what these procedures really are and what does it actually cost me out-of-pocket?"

Coming out of a hackathon, last year, we integrated natural language search into our tools. That means that similar to what you might be used to in Google or so is you can type questions or you don't have to know the health care esoteric terminology. You can just say, "I'm looking for a kid doctor," right, and we want to be able to turn that into the appropriate pediatrician search or what you're looking for or "How much is a knee replacement" or something, we want to be able to turn that question into some useful data to help guide you on your search.

LC: Northon, I know you've been involved in the hackathon since the very beginning. It was your idea. You've brought them to life here and you also wrote a blog post about some of the benefits and the value of this process to the organization. Can you talk a little bit about that blog post? You had an interesting analogy.

NR: We call it the ATP effect. ATP is just a unit of energy and the cool thing about ATP is that there are two ways to create energy, which is using fermentation or adding oxygen. Now when using fermentation for each molecule of energy, it generates two ATPs, but the moment you put oxygen, the same process generates 38 ATPs.

The huge difference here is what a hackathon brings in your organization is the transformation, where it no longer get a linear effect. It gets such an exponential impact for the return on investment on your innovation, productivity, and building team across the floor.

It's very interesting because sometimes, when you know someone and you work closely with someone else, you can get a lot more done, but if you don't know someone across the floor, you might not help them out.  But as the hackathon breaks the barriers and the walls between departments, you see the entire organization working much better and be more productive.

Making Hackathons Go Mainstream

“You're going to see a major culture shift on relationship and the ability to be more productive. The biggest advice is get started.” 

LC: I know you came today prepared or you came today with some results that you've tracked. Maybe you can share what you've learned over four hackathons.

NR: 60+% of all the ideas and processes generated in the hackathon have been adopted by HealthSparq over the past four years, which is amazing numbers. It's interesting-

LC: This creative process that's kind of down on the side is now coming to life in products and solutions aimed at their customers.

DA: There are so many little ones that we brought up. One, two-person hackathon projects at this time are able to go live, that went live within a week, within two weeks afterward that are delivering value to the organization immediately.

Sometimes, that's nitpicking or ideas that engineers have. People save it up now. They save it up throughout the quarter. They say, "I'm going to tackle that for the next hackathon. When I get three days to just spend on whatever I want, I'm going to go fix that," and so they come into it with ideas.

Pitchfest, this time, gave people ideas that they weren't sure what they were doing. Sometimes, pitchfest convinces people to work on that versus the other idea they have, but generally, people keep a list somewhere.

LC: It seems like the hackathon has evolved over time, beginning with a small group of engineers between the holidays and now it's a little bit more of a ...

NR: Mainstream.

LC: Mainstream. Yeah. Do you ever see extending the hackathon in your organization to external partners or customers or consumers?

DA: Well, the T-shirts that Northon printed do say, "The Great North American Health Care Hackathon," so that would be our goal.

LC: Well, is there anything else either of you would like to share about the hackathon, what you've learned, what the experience is like, and how bringing together engineers and then unleashing their creativity can help solve health care problems?

DA: I would encourage other companies and other teams to give this a shot. Start smaller, if you're looking for something, a lot of companies do one-day hackathons. They call them hack days or whatever they are. It's important that it's on company time and that it's a sponsored company event and that we're actually saying, "Let's bring this to life."

Sometimes, hackathons are for very specific purposes. "Let's go write plugins to this software" or "Let's go tackle these specific problems." We've run ours very open-ended, but any one of those options are good options that hopefully get more creativity flowing.

NR: A huge, important aspect of the hackathon is the culture building and such that we have executive sponsorship and support and even the gifts, we have executive-sponsored gifts, where the winners actually get to spend time with the executives and doing something they love. Going fishing or going for a jog. Doing so many different things that just bring people that normally wouldn't talk.

As any company start, be it small or large, and spending time doing the hackathons, you're going to see a major culture shift in the relationship and the ability to be more productive. The biggest advice is get started. Don't put it off because you will see a big return on investment.

LC: Right. Thank you so much, Dan and Northon. This was a fascinating conversation, and I really enjoyed talking to you.

NR: Great. Same here.

DA: Thank you very much.

NR: Thank you.

LC: That wraps up this episode of HealthChangers. You can find more information on all of our episodes at You can also follow us on Twitter, @Cambia. Please subscribe to HealthChangers on iTunes or Stitcher and leave a review. Thanks for listening.