Why developers should enter health IT contests

Developers can make money writing code that makes patients safer.

Patient safety is a movement within healthcare to reduce medical errors. Medical errors are a substantial problem in the healthcare industry, with a size and scope similar to car accidents: approximately the same number of deaths per year, about the same number of serious injuries. Personally I think working in patient safety is the simplest way for a geek to make a meaningful difference.

With that in mind I would like to promote a new developer contest sponsored by the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC), Partnership for Patients and hosted by Health 2.0: Ensuring Safe Transitions from Hospital to Home Challenge. As the name suggests, the contest is focused on the process of handing a patient over from an in-patient environment (in the hospital) to an out-patient environment (all the care that is not in a hospital).

I will be one of the judges for this contest and there are already enough “star players” submitting as teams in the contest that I know judging is going to be hard. The first prize is $25,000. That kind of money starts looking like seed-round funding rather than just a pat on the head. That is intentional on the part of both Health 2.0 and ONC. These contests are a way for ONC to find really amazing health IT ideas and help them transition into more substantial projects, with no strings attached. If you can prove to the judges that you have the best new idea and you can flesh it out well enough to make it clear that it has a chance of working, then you can walk away with enough cash to launch that idea. But don’t take my word for it:

Of course, even just submitting in the contest is a good way to get the attention of various investors.

Generally, the coordination of care in the United States is one of the greatest weaknesses in the system. Doctors here in the U.S. are generally well educated and held to high standards. As long as a doctor has a good understanding of your situation and has taken responsibility for your care, the U.S. healthcare system provides excellent care, on par with any other national system. The problem comes when a healthcare transition occurs, where a different doctor takes responsibility without necessarily getting all the needed information and sometimes without knowing that they are “on the hook” for care. Healthcare in the United States is coordinated via fax machines, and coordination for payment, which is sometimes associated with transitions of care, frequently uses ancient EDI standards. When this coordination fails things turn into a kind of communication comedy, which really would be quite funny except that there are sometimes tragic consequences. It actually helps to have a somewhat morbid sense of humor working in healthcare, since laughter, even inappropriate and macabre laughter, can help to manage the stress and pressure inherent in this high-stakes environment.

There are new standards and technologies available for the coordination of care during transitions that ONC is specifically encouraging in this contest, including the Direct Project, which is of course a favorite of mine (I am a sometimes-developer on the project).

These new technologies allow you rethink the basic assumptions in healthcare coordination, (i.e. Direct is basically “email that doctors can use without breaking the rules”) and should enable teams without extensive health IT experience to do something truly innovative.

More importantly, Partnership for Patients and ONC are providing specific guidance about content. Partnership for Patients is an HHS program that “partners” with hospitals and clinics that have committed to proactively reduce patient error and complications. The Partnership has very specific goals: “To reduce preventable injuries in hospitals by 40 percent and cut hospital readmission by 20 percent in the next three years by targeting those return trips to the hospitals that are avoidable.” This contest is only a small part of how they hope to achieve those goals.

CMS has released a patient checklist for hospital discharge, and the contents must be incorporated into winning contest submissions. But I can tell you from previous judging experience, thinking that “incorporate” = “regurgitate” is not a winning strategy. Instead, try to get your head around the complex hospital discharge phenomenon. PubMed is your friend. In my experience doing something amazing with one of the checklist items would be a better strategy then doing something derivative with all of the items. Doing something amazing with all of the items on the checklist would obviously win, but it may be impossible to do that well. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this.)

My day job is with the Cautious Patient Foundation (CPF). They hire me to write software to improve the communication between doctors and patients, which is part of their mission to provide software tools that enable patients to help reduce their own medical errors by being fully engaged, educated and aware. If the healthcare system were a highway the Cautious Patient Foundation would be a defensive driving course. CPF has a grant program that they use to fund innovations that impact patient safety. Contest participants are encouraged to submit their ideas to the Cautious Patient Foundation grant process. We are interested in innovative ideas that impact patient safety generally, not just in transitions of care. So if you have a winning patient safety concept that does not fit into this particular contest, we might be interested.

Moreover, there is nothing to stop you from submitting the same technology to one of theother Health 2.0 contests or even to another joint ONC/Health 2.0 contest. Many of these contests could easily be won by an application that does something with a patient safety impact. If you have a great idea for improving healthcare with software, just wait … there will eventually be a contest asking for just the kind of innovation you have.

All of this is to say: There is some real money in these developer contests. Traditional health IT experts who feel trapped can use contests to fund and promote their non-traditional ideas. Developers who are new to the field of health IT can use the contests as a way to break in and get attention for their ideas. Great ideas that improve the healthcare system can get traction, funding and attention. If you can get your great idea working and you submit it to one of these developers contests you can get some feedback.

Maybe your idea actually sucks, but if you knew why, then you could come up with a new idea that really would be great. In any case, it is pretty hard for a developer to just lose by participating in these contests. Worst case scenario is that is ends up being a free education. Who knows? You might be an important part of another developer’s free education.

No matter what, working on software that addresses patient safety issues is one of the few ways that a software developer can impact quality of life rather than convenience of life. These contests, especially the in-person code-a-thons, are fun enough that you might even find yourself forgetting that you are changing the world.

Meaningful Use and Beyond: A Guide for IT Staff in Health Care — Meaningful Use underlies a major federal incentives program for medical offices and hospitals that pays doctors and clinicians to move to electronic health records (EHR). This book is a rosetta stone for the IT implementer who wants to help organizations harness EHR systems.

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  • Andy M

    These contests would definitely fruitful for Health care IT & the patients. It would have been a lot better if any individual or companies were allowed to participate in it. We at AMT were keen to be part these contest, if given an opportunity.

  • Jesse Gordon

    I totally agree with you, Andy. Such contests would be a lot better if it’s open to all!

  • http://www.fredtrotter.com Fred Trotter

    Jesse and Andy,

    I understand how you feel. Being excluded from a contest because you are not a U.S. company can be frustrating.

    Keep in mind that some of the ONC contests are funded either directly or indirectly by ARRA/HITECH which is a government stimulus package intended to help the U.S. economy recover. Sometimes this means that the contest winners must be U.S. based.

    However, many Health 2.0 developer contests are open to anyone of any nationality. You can be a company or just an individual. While this contest might not be for you, there is definitely a contest that you can participate in. Look especially at the events that Health 2.0 will put on in New Delhi and Berlin, which should be right up your alley.

    -FT