Physicians maintain tech momentum through Hacking Health Ottawa

Health computer

As physicians and techies alike gather Friday night for the second-ever Hacking Health Ottawa event hosted at Shopify, a few of the successful projects from last year’s hackathon are crediting the initiative with both jump-starting their work and continuing the momentum.

Hacking Health is a three-day hackathon that takes physicians’ problems out of the hospital and brings them into the world of tech. Programmers, designers and engineers form teams with doctors and surgeons to find opportunities in healthcare to improve service delivery and patient care.

Caitlin Schwartz and Suzanne Rutherford, two family physicians whose project won numerous awards at least year’s event, have continued to develop their app as a side project. Women’s Health Information Tracker, or WHIT, aims to be a resource for Canadian women in need of health resources. It aims to provide personalized information to women who may otherwise turn to the internet as an unreliable guide.

WHIT took a step back from app development after last year’s event to regroup, but returned to the project this past fall with focus groups designed to diagnose the needs of women in the country. Rutherford and Schwartz say they were glad they didn’t jump directly into building the app, because the needs are deeper than they first imagined.

“Canadian women definitely need this information, even more than we initially understood,” says Rutherford.

The latest developments have WHIT rolling out a social media information campaign and beginning work on a website that will act as a standalone resource with some personalized info, something their research identified as a gap in women’s health services.

Physician entrepreneurs

Progress hasn’t come easily. Running a startup is a time-suck for most entrepreneurs, but for two working physicians, both with young children, it’s a hard schedule to manage. Rutherford and Schwartz have found some pockets for development, such as organizing schedules at the clinic or taking fewer shifts at the emergency room, but neither entrepreneur nor physician are jobs for the faint of heart.

“It’s definitely, without doubt, been a challenge,” says Rutherford.

One of last year’s participants, Kevin Cheung, a plastic surgeon at CHEO, had his idea to provide up-to-date wait times for patients at home piloted at the hospital. Reached by email, Cheung says he’s been able to validate wait-time data at his own clinic and is in the process of implementing a prototype display. With some funding, he’d be able to study the pilot’s effectiveness and potentially scale it to other labs and departments at the hospital.

Though he won’t be there in person, Cheung adds that he’ll have a team at this year’s hackathon working on two projects, one of which is an extension to last year’s successful idea.

Hackathon momentum

Schwartz says one of the most significant benefits to attending Hacking Health has been establishing a network of tech-minded entrepreneurs to make their ideas a reality. Through the hackathon Rutherford and Schwartz met Monica Zaczynski, who has since become a full partner on WHIT and represents the firm’s tech side.

“It’s been a big challenge just realizing how much we didn’t know about the tech industry,” Schwartz says, adding that the team has received support from Invest Ottawa over the past year to help make sense of startup life.

She and Rutherford also give credit to the community around Hacking Health for continuing their momentum. Regular meetups and events have allowed them to network with more people hoping to make a difference in healthcare, which has in turn furthered WHIT’s momentum and deepened its pool of resources.

Both women were already planning to be at Hacking Health Ottawa this weekend to lend their support, but a last-minute dropout means Rutherford will also be stepping into the judge’s seat for Sunday afternoon’s pitches.

Hacking Health Ottawa’s second hackathon begins Friday evening and runs until Sunday at Shopify’s downtown headquarters.