Hacking into innovation – a new model of collaboration


Hackathons, which bring together a variety of specialists to work intensively on solving particular problems, are being used increasingly in the healthcare space. Candace Shaw explains how they can incubate new ideas while keeping within regulatory boundaries.

Pharma is in the innovation business – advancing medicine and patient care through the research and development of novel treatments. However, it can often be considered conservative when it comes to adopting new ideas in the digital and communication space. This is a natural reaction given the heavy regulations the industry operates under, but it shouldn't be held back by this.

The technology sector was first to introduce hackathons as a way to bring specialists together to focus on one key challenge, and create new ways of thinking about finding a resolution. More recently, this has been applied in the healthcare arena to challenges in the pharmaceutical industry.

We ran our own 13-hour hackathon event – Kollider – to see what can be achieved through applying this format to the types of questions we regularly face within our medical communications business.

Bringing the hackathon to medical communications

A total of 50 digital and creative specialists from the company were divided into groups, and each was set a challenge. The groups brought together a complementary mix of skillsets, talents and experience, including all levels of creative, strategy, digital and project management.

Representatives from Lundbeck and Novartis acted as judges alongside members of the company's senior leadership team.

The challenges were submitted by various individuals working in the sector and were based on their knowledge of the industry and the questions they had to address on a day-to-day basis.

The resulting solutions were predominantly focused on patient communications. They ranged from an online support community for rare disease patients to a smart phone app encouraging optimum inhaler usage in teenagers with asthma.

Two ideas which the judging panel flagged as outstanding were 'iTrack', an app which tracked and supported patients and their families during their hospital journey, and 'Monsterville', a game which encouraged better patient-physician communication and treatment adherence in young children.

A real frustration for carers, friends and families of patients is lack of knowledge or updates about a patient's status when they are in surgery, attending an appointment or receiving treatment. The idea of the iTrack app was to provide real-time patient updates, allowing the user to be kept informed without having to bother medical staff. In scoping the app, the team also addressed considerations for implementing it in the real world, such as compliance and data protection, administration and resource implications, and integration with healthcare IT systems.

The thinking behind Monsterville was to allow children to create a character through which they could voice worries about their condition and medication. The information shared in the game would then be sent to the child's doctor, who could use it to aid treatment decisions or to talk to the patient and their family about the issues raised. It was felt that the game would gain buy-in from the physician community as an aid to communication with no suggestion of failure on the physician's part.

Speeding up innovation

The key learning from the hackathon was that it provided a new and unique way of speeding up the innovation process for pharma clients. These solutions might have been created outside this format, but by combining diverse talents in one place for just one day, the creative process was significantly enhanced and accelerated.

Bringing together a team of experts and enabling them to work in new ways, combining expertise in an environment which cultivates creativity and cross-departmental thinking, is a great advantage for innovation, but it can make those responsible for compliance very nervous. This is not an insurmountable problem, however. In this case, the compliance officer was available throughout the event for consultation on the viability of solutions, to ensure participants pushed the boundaries and did not let regulatory concerns hold back progress.

A new way of working

The hackathon created a number of potential solutions for real-world problems which can be developed further. But, more importantly, it introduced a new way of working, which can now be replicated. Bringing together a team of people, each with their own talents and expertise, and focusing them on a single challenge for a single day, created an environment that fostered creativity and innovative thinking.

This is likely to extend beyond the sphere of medical communications into the pharma industry. Indeed, there are instances of this happening already, with the company subsequently participating in, and providing guidance as mentors at, the UK portion of 'Breathe', a respiratory hardware hack which brought together designers, technicians, engineers, patients, physicians and entrepreneurs to investigate solutions to many of the problems that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients face daily. The outcomes from the Breathe hackathon have since been shared at the European Respiratory Society 2015 Congress in Amsterdam.

The hackathon model is being used to great effect in other industries and starting to be applied to healthcare. By extending its use further, pharma and medical communications can evolve as quickly as the environment they work in demands, meaning effective collaboration and greater innovation for the benefit of the patient.

About the author:

Candace Shaw is digital project lead at eMedFusion, part of Ashfield Healthcare, with over 12 years of global experience in pharmaceutical and healthcare digital marketing. A strategic thinker, team leader and creative problem solver, she manages multidisciplinary teams to plan and coordinate innovative digital solutions for a diverse spectrum of products and clients.

Contact her via Email: candace.shaw@ashfieldhealthcare.com

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