Hacking Healthcare

Hacking Healthcare

ID sophomore Philip Lau 18 ID and Professor Leslie Fontana (both far left) with their winning team at the 2016 Hackathon.

On the second night of the Yale Healthcare Hackathon in New Haven, CT, Industrial Design Professor Leslie Fontana was walking across the university’s campus through a strong winter storm—without a hat or scarf. The Yale students who directed her to the School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) Machine Shop, where she was headed to continue work on her group’s entry in the weekend competition, were “[having] a blast walking into the wind and snow,” she says. “Can you guess who didn’t have a blast?”

Fontana’s frustration with the elements melted when she arrived at the machine shop and found all the material she needed and more for making CarryFree, a prototype carrying system for Cystic Fibrosis patients to self-administer nebulizer treatments.

“I pulled my first all-nighter in many years,” Fontana says of designing and sewing the bag for CarryFree, which won second overall prize and the MIT Hacking Medicine Award at the hackathon. “I had the best time I’ve had in quite some time.”

Modeled after Silicon Valley tech hackathons, healthcare hackathons draw people from many disciplines interested in discovering and developing innovations for patients and providers. At this year’s Yale hackathon—the third annual event—a small group of students and faculty from RISD were among the participants who listened as students and professionals in nursing, engineering, UI/UX, patient advocacy and other fields made short “pain point” presentations addressing the theme of “re-engineering the patient experience and provider engagement.”

After hearing the presentations, participants formed teams to work on various ideas presented, embarking on a “race against the clock,” as Associate Professor of ID Claudia Rebola put it. Ultimately, her team won Best Design for Your Choice, an app that helps people share end-of-life wishes through a conversational, educational and empowering user interface.

“I’m very much invested in advancing design to help older adults… be in control of their life and their choices,” Rebola explains. The opportunity to collaborate across disciplines to design software that can close the gap between the 90% of people who think end-of-life decision-making is important and the 27% who have actively engaged in that process held tremendous appeal. “We left [the group’s workspace] around 9 pm on Saturday, started working again at 8 am the next morning” and kept going until the noon deadline on Sunday, she reports.

Since Your Choice was recognized as a design that “can be deployed tomorrow,” Rebola and her team have continued to meet with industry professionals to work toward developing and implementing the app. “We are highly motivated to bring the product to the next level and make it real,” she says.

Brown neuroscience student Amanda Way’s pitch for CarryFree resonated emotionally with Fontana, who knows someone who lost twin teenage daughters to Cystic Fibrosis. She also joined Way’s team because she wanted to work on a physical product at the hackathon. Sophomore Philip Lau 18 ID also helped out on the team, which made a rinsing basket, carry-and-store tray and bag designed to make a patient’s nebulizer less conspicuous.

“We were lucky enough to find a bunch of this weird black fabric that I made stiffer and more backpack-like by sandwiching a layer of bubble wrap and cardboard between the layers,” says Fontana, who designed and sewed the carrying bag. The team also made a welt from fabric and rubber tubing—scrap materials they found at the SEAS shop.

“I really never expected that we would win anything, so to win the MIT Hacking Medicine Award and second prize overall in the competition was thrilling,” Fontana says, crediting Way for proposing an inspiring product. Like the Your Choice team, the CarryFree group has continued to discuss the future of the product and has already begun the process of filing for a provisional patent. “Super excited” sums up their collective mood.

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