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Talking Mirrors and Virtual Nurses: Million Dollar Ideas from MIT’s Grand Hack

MIT Hacking Medicine events are known in the Boston area as fertile networking grounds where paradigm changing healthcare innovations, and multi-million dollar ideas, have taken root. It was here that Elliot Cohen and TJ Parker conceived of PillPack, which raised $50 million dollars last June, and where the team behind Arsenal Health, recently acquired by Athenahealth, got their start.

This year at the 2016 Grand Hack, a new group of highly caffeinated hopefuls assembled with the aim of leveraging technology to address major problems in healthcare. On Saturday morning, physicians, UX designers, software engineers and business students split into teams of up to 6 participants and worked throughout the weekend to identify problems and develop technology enabled solutions that fell into three tracks: chronic conditions, healthcare at home, connected health.

“Last year, $7 Billion went into digital health startups from the private sector,” said Hacking Medicine faculty advisor Zen Chu. “Everybody sees that technology is one of the only ways to scale medicine and accomplish the triple aim of healthcare—increase access, increase the quality and consistency of care, and lower costs.”

My first stop of the day was a table scattered with empty Red Bull cans, a few Raspberry Pi computer boards, a shower radio, and a disassembled medicine cabinet, home base for a team named WellView. Donned in a green TechStars hoodie, software engineer and serial hackathon attendee Richard Grundy was working with his team to develop an AI powered “smart-mirror” that helps patients suffering from depression collect data on their moods between visits to the doctor.

The team, which included another software engineer, a clinician, and a robotics specialist, were working to outfit a mirror with a speaker, microphone and vision sensor so that it can ask users questions about their day and collect verbal and facial expression data. These metrics would then be fed into a crunching algorithm that generates a report for a physician to consult.

“The thing that we like about the mirror approach is that it’s instrumented—you’re making the environment react to you,” explains Grundy of his decision to stray from a more traditional mobile application solution. “Although a mobile device is something that is always with us, I think that there is a level of friction there.”

Next I spoke to Joshua Phipps who was developing ViViaN, a virtual visiting nurse for seniors aging at home with type 2 diabetes. Phipps and his team were developing a voice interactive nurse that communicates with seniors using Amazon Echo’s omni-directional microphone.

The platform intends to do things like remind users to take medicines and attend appointments, or ask questions as to whether they are complying with diet and exercise guidelines. The user can give answers to ViViaN, and even ask it questions. It would also have the ability to connect with caregivers, should the user’s interaction with ViViaN indicate that the user needs assistance, or if the user asks ViViaN a question that is not in it’s knowledge base. The team plans to use FHIR to both pull meaningful use information from EHRs and feed collected information back into it.

My final stop of the day was with the team developing Hey,Charlie, a mobile app for opiate addicts who are in recovery or are seeking recovery. The team is led by Emily Lindemer, a 3rd year PhD candidate in the health sciences and technology program at MIT.

Lindemer, who has had someone close to her suffer from opiate addiction, knows that environment is a major hurdle for recovering addicts. “It’s hard to get out of the environment you started using in when you come back from rehab,” she explained. “And you’ll be at risk of using again if you’re with the people you started using with.”

After crowdsourcing advice from the Recovery Subreddit, Lindemer and her team of UX designers, engineers, and a clinical psychologist came up with an app that, at its core, does two simple things—blacklists the numbers of people who might thwart recovery, such as dealers or other addicts, and highlight the numbers of people who are positive influences.

Lindemer felt strongly about giving the app users total sense of autonomy in their decisions. “There are so many programs out there to support recovering addicts, but I feel like they’re all just missing the mark just a little bit,” she says. “There’s a lot patronization of recovering addicts.”

Hey,Charlie makes a concerted effort to differentiate itself from other more patronizing products. It does not block numbers, but rather, should the user attempt to text a person on the blacklist, the app will simply ask “are you sure you want to do this?” The app also features a reward system that congratulates users for not texting people on their blacklist, and prompts that encourage users to enrich positive relationships.

On Sunday Hey,Charlie won the “Best Mental Health Hack,” and the group has plans to continue developing the product beyond the hack. Other winners of the weekend included Vision Reach, a virtual reality solution for screening strabismus in young children and Community Connect, a service that identifies patients with significant psycho social needs and connects them with social services.

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