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HealthCamp’s Unconference Sparks Big Ideas


HealthCamp Boston’s hosts David Harlow and Janice McCallum. All photos by Monica Miller.

HealthCamp returned to Boston this week seeking to top its successful 2012 event. Held at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge on November 3, 2014, this year’s “unconference,” patterned after the open source community BarCamp, attracted people from diverse areas of the healthcare community. Former participants eagerly returned to revisit live issues and explore new ideas while those new to HealthCamp were unsure of what an “unconference” was about.

“I don’t know what to expect at a HealthCamp. I’m just looking to meet cool people who are doing cool stuff,” said TechTarget news and feature writer, Shaun Sutner.

Nurse Dorrie Bartels, founder & chief consultant of HIT Remedy had no expectations for this new experience. “I hoped to have my mind stretched, to expand my thinking,” she said.

So what is an unconference? While traditional conferences offer a series of scheduled talks, an “unconference” doesn’t have an agenda until the attendees create one. Creativity flows in an open source format yielding a multitude of ideas that can be shared with people in places well beyond the day’s confines.

“The best conversations happen in the hallways. We try to take those conversations into the room” said founder David Harlow, a healthcare lawyer, consultant, and blogger who orchestrated this event with associate Janice McCallum, managing director of Health Content Advisors. “Basically it’s an opportunity for like minded individuals to get together and share ideas and share thoughts.”

This year’s HealthCamp Boston offered a creative exchange amongst participants from diverse backgrounds with conversations specifically geared toward improving healthcare. Patients, tech specialists, healthcare providers, entrepreneurs, and many other contributors were represented.

The day opened with quick “4 X 4” presentations (4 slides in 4 minutes) from innovators who discussed the what, how, and why of their products, but looked to participants to help solve problems they encountered in moving forward.

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Laura McCaughey, Senior Director of Corporate Marketing at Navinet, giving a “4 X 4” presentation.

During the 4×4, Synbiota COO Justin Pahara presented #ScienceHack 2014, a globally shared data research project designed to genetically engineer violacein, a natural cancer-fighting compound. Violacein’s potential health benefits and prohibitive cost ($350K per gram) sparked Synbiota’s quest to create an E. coli strain that would support production on demand. These DNA design experiments are performed across the world using Genomikon’s Violacein Factory kit with Synbiota’s free platform. Pahara, who led healthcampers through a hands on lab workshop, feels that synthetic biology will be significant in future disease combat.

Psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds offered SunSprite, a solar powered wearable that tracks and quantifies sunlight exposure. She touts it as a tool for treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), reporting that 10% of Americans have SAD and 20% the winter blues, resulting in 30% of people being affected by the darker months. “It’s the Fitbit for light,” said Olds, who noted sunlight’s ability to cure SAD and winter blues faster and as effectively as SSRIs. Priced at $149, the SunSprite comes with a free personal coaching app available on iTunes.


Dorrie Bartels, BSN, founder of HIT Remedy (left) and Dr. Jacqueline Olds, psychiatrist and co-founder of SunSprite (right).

The open format of the unconference gave attendees the freedom to create a dialogue by writing questions and ideas on index cards that were placed on a wall. Harlow and HealthCamp Foundation co-founder Mark Scrimshire sorted those ideas into broader topics with subgroups, thereby creating the day’s agenda. Communication in care coordination, tools for promoting patient engagement, and the advantages and disadvantages of sharing healthcare data in regard to privacy & HIPAA issues generated spirited discussion. Electronic health record (EHR) deficiencies and the lack of interoperability plaguing many platforms also stirred lively debate.


The day’s agenda separated into sessions.

Improving patient health outside of the clinical setting through patient engagement was a major theme of the unconference, centering on using self-tracking data from wearables and other tools, and telemedicine. Harlow believes that better communication and a more holistic approach will allow patients to be more engaged. He notes that most of healthcare occurs when the patient is not directly interacting with the healthcare system so face-to-face encounters aren’t always necessary.

“It’s about the little choices that we make every day about diet, about exercise, and about environmental things,” Harlow said. He believes that healthcare providers need to better understand how to use technology to keep people healthy and out of the office.

“How do you take consumer engagement to the next level by meaningfully integrating consumer facing tools with the healthcare system? That’s where the big challenge and opportunity is right now,” Klio Health CEO and co-founder Jacqueline Thong said of what she took away from the unconference. She and other participants were pleased with how HealthCamp Boston 2014 unfolded and they look forward to the results.


Participants discuss pertinent topics enthusiastically at one of the group-dictated break out sessions.

“It’s good to see that conversations that happen in a meeting like this can continue over time – and they do continue on Twitter, tweet chats, blogs, online and through person to person communications. Hopefully this will germinate into ideas that will let us take action and improve things in healthcare over time,” Harlow said.

RanksAcademy, Consumer Medical, NaviNet, Personal Remedies, Selventa, and Primed InLight EHR also presented during the unconference.


David Harlow and Janice McCallum display their “Walking Gallery” jackets at the end of the unconference. The jackets were created by Regina Holliday, medical advocate and artist.

Monica Miller

Monica Miller

    Monica E. Miller, MD is a plastic & reconstructive surgeon in Boston working to improve healthcare through academia and organized medicine. She received a BS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MD from the Brody School of Medicine. She has a passion for technology, music, and writing. She also works in the community in youth education, development, and empowerment. You can connect with Monica on LinkedIn (monicamillermd) and Twitter @MonicaMillerMD.

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