It’s no secret that healthcare is plagued by silos, from biopharma and med-tech firms to the big EHR companies—even the FDA. These have been a main hurdle blocking the multiple ecosystems in healthcare from intersecting to solve its well-known problems. With biopharmas on the hunt for services to support their therapeutics, or for early stage design thinking, the problem is felt all the more acutely.

Enter the health hackathon, a marathon-style open-innovation session that brings patients together with clinicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, design experts—and increasingly biopharma and med-tech execs—for  positive hacking, often with prizes for winning ideas.

A marriage made in heaven? Not necessarily. It depends whether the participants are solving the “right” problems. And, what happens after the hack—do the silos stay down, or is that just temporary? Finally, is the hype around these events helping or hurting?

Industry is just dipping its toe into hackathons. To wit: One of the most recent took place over a mid-November weekend at Merck offices in Darmstadt Germany. Oncology device firm Novocure held one this past year, as well.

There have been well over 200 hackathons in healthcare now, Aman Bhandari, Merck executive director, data science & insights, noted at last week’s MM&M SkillSets Live, in Boston, which was designed to examine the nascent trend. First held in 1999 at Sun Microsystems, it arrived in healthcare in 2010, thanks in part to Bhandari.

“We are at the very early stages of hackathons in heathcare,” added Naomi Fried, who has run these innovation sessions at Kaiser Permanente, Boston Children’s Hospital and most recently at Biogen.

“It’s vital for healthcare to run more hackathons,” Fried said, “because … [there are] a lot of great ideas that are not being embraced by the hospital, by pharma or by healthcare organizations, but the patients really have the ideas. So this is an opportunity to really give [them a] voice.”

The way hackathons are structured is in sync with the way the life-sci discovery process is changing. “Innovation is no longer something that happens solely in the lab—it can happen from anywhere and anyone,” said Chris Iafolla, head of digital health and social strategy for inVentiv Health PR Group who helped run Novocure’s hackathon at last June’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting.

The hackathon was designed to meet the need for technology-based resources that may help ease the cognitive and emotional burden felt by patients with glioblastoma (GBM) and their caregivers. Participants included an IT startup, advocacy groups, as well as execs from the device firm.

“We didn’t want to inhibit creativity but wanted to be sure we provided a framework and brought the resources into the room that could help folks who may not be familiar at all with GBM,” said Tracey Hanover, director, business operations and communications at Novocure.

Teams competed for $17,500 in cash. Solutions presented addressed multiple concerns. Hanover said the company is now evaluating how it can employ them.

Hackathons represent the “front end of innovation,” explained Zen Chu, co-founder of the Hacking Medicine Institute at MIT, in his keynote at the MM&M event.

MIT’s Hacking Medicine program has run 40 or so on four continents since 2011, including private ones within pharma firms and open events such as one at BIO that drew 500 participants and another at the Emergency Nurses Association that attracted 700.
Their growing popularity has a downside, though. We’re starting to hear about the phenomenon of the “hackathonaholic,” those who can’t stay away, or—at the other end of the spectrum—“hackathon fatigue,” which, as the name implies refers to cynics who refuse to attend them.

“There is a lot of that already happening,” said Bhandari, “when I hear about people [who say] ‘I’m not going; the prize money is not enough,’ or ‘They’re just using me to get free labor for the day.’”

That’s bad, he stressed, “because healthcare is a place where we need as much help as we can get.” Respect for the hacking community and for maker spaces—another new trend cropping up in healthcare—can help avoid this issue.

There are two other nagging questions. “The reality is … a lot of the areas that are really ripe for disruption are not very sexy,” said Mandira Singh, senior manager, business development, athenahealth, who recently oversaw her firm’s third annual More Disruption Please (MDP) hackathon.

She tossed out the following examples: putting a blood bank in the cloud, and finding ways to track durable medical equipment so that patient appointments are not canceled because the clinical staff doesn’t have all they need.

“Where are the innovators [for these problems]?” she posed. “Making FitBits.”

Referring to the large amount of funding invested in health start-ups this year, Singh added, “How much of it is helping healthcare solve those hairy nitty-gritty problems? Probably the minority … Everyone is going out and hacking in the me-too’s. They’re not looking at end uses … the needs that aren’t being met and not taking the risk of selling into the fragmented spaces where if you can get a foothold, your company’s really going to make it.

“So if we go on a healthcare hackathon, the way to do it is to get your hands really dirty and strategize with the hairiest problems, and it will help your companies grow the market,” Singh suggested.

The final question, also posed by Singh: Does this silo-busting enable lasting collaboration? More pointedly, can hacking happen outside of a hackathon?

“At the hackathon everyone’s willing to play nicely with each other, and then they leave and nothing happens,” Singh lamented.

She answered, “If you make data available, encourage innovators and create a path to success for those innovators, you will find the entrepreneurs will come and use your data and create innovation.”