Medicine and public health have had a long history and strong roots in experimentation and solving problems through iteration. As healthcare now begins to intersect with tech like never before, the health focused hackathon offers an unprecedented opportunity for us to embrace this past while giving a home to the tinkering, experimentation, and solution-building that is needed now more than ever in our industry.

The first recorded use of the word “hack” occurred 900 years ago, but the more common and positive use of “hack”—to write a computer program for enjoyment—originated in the hallowed halls of MIT in the 1950s. The “hackathon, a portmanteau of ‘hack’ and ‘marathon’,” was first born out of a challenge posed to programmers at a conference in Silicon Valley by John Gage of Sun Microsystems in 1999. Borrowing from what became a tech sector institution, one of the first health focused hackathons was launched at a national scale over a decade later in 2010 as a part of a public-private partnership between the US Government and Health 2.0 (co-launched by Aman Bhandari and Indu Subaiya as the Health2.0 Developer Challenge). Since that time, the practice has expanded rapidly: we have found and analyzed over 100 health-focused hackathons (the full living database is available for download, analysis and editing on the MIT Hacking Medicine website here: across the world, and the number is quickly growing [Figure 1].


Critics argue that hackathons are inadequate to solve the truly complex problems of the health care industry[1]. Breakthrough innovation often occurs with ideas from outside of a field—and hackathons, serve as one of the few scalable platforms available to bring together people from multiple disciplines to rapidly solve problems. It has been difficult to collaborate in healthcare in a way that is inclusive of important stakeholders such as patients, entrepreneurs, designers and others. Hackathons have the ability to be uniquely inclusive of patients—as their voice is often critical to how problems are defined and solved.

To quote the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke, “no one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” No one tool will solve all the problems of a system as complex as health care, which beyond its scientific and economic dimensions is deeply interwoven with political, emotional, and ethical considerations. The hackathon model, while not a cure-all, provides an unparalleled innovation opportunityfor the following three reasons:

  1. Silo Busting: They Unite Diverse Stakeholders – The healthcare industry has been notoriously siloed, a challenge which is felt now more than ever as experts agree that system-wide collaboration is needed. Giving hope to the future possibility of long-term collaboration, hackathons engage clinicians, patients, software developers, engineers, entrepreneurs and designers to integrate a diversity of perspectives, fostering collaboration like no other emerging model in healthcare. Healthcare-focused hackathons have become a global phenomena bringing together highly diverse stakeholders across the world, including sponsors and partners from government (HHS, NHS),universities (MIT, Georgetown), specialty societies and disease organizations(APHA, American Cancer Society), technology companies (Microsoft, Google),biopharmaceutical companies (Novartis, Genentech), providers and payers(Kaiser Permanente, Aetna) and startups. The problems tackled have also been diverse, including both disease-focused areas (e.g. diabetes, mental health, oncology, pain management) as well as other issues more structured around care delivery (e.g. waiting room experience, health literacy, ACA implementation).6 Insights from the Health Hackathon Database:
  2. Rapid Results: They Produce Tangible Outcomes for Participants – Working in such highly cross-functional teams facilitates iterative conception and testing of ideas—and eventual development into more complete functional prototypes, all of which offer immediate benefits to innovators. One of the most important outcomes is that participants are exposed to a variety of programming languages as well as problem solving approaches (e.g. human-centered design), offering a “bootcamp” for entrepreneurial and technical training. At minimum, interesting new approaches are developed and publicized, but sometimes these ideas can even lead to successful company formation. One example of a company launched out of a hackathon isPillPack, a full service pharmacy that aims to simplify medication management through novel packaging, proactive refill management, and personalized service from pharmacists. While hackathons often give birth to ideas that need further testing and exploration, some venture capitalists are finding hackathons to be an important source of talent identification, new opportunities and trend spotting. This provides another often unstated benefit for participates – where else can they pitch an idea to a potential customer such as a health plan executive or a funder such as a foundation or investor based on work they have created?Infographic by Kirsten Nelson based on the Health Hackathon Database

    3. Create Runway: They Provide a Petri Dish for Experimentation for Sponsors One of the biggest results we’ve seen from hackathons is the benefits they provide to the host organization’s own ability to breed a culture and mindset of innovation – from opening up their data sets, learning from failure, and understanding the potential and challenges that new technologies bring. There have even been examples where the hackathon’s true impact can be seen in the increased commitment to future innovation. Making this case, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Michael Docktor, MD, who ran a hackathon with MIT’s Hacking Medicine points to the subsequent Boston Children’s acceleration of innovation projects as an outcome of the organization’s experiments with the hackathon model.

This is a pivotal moment for healthcare, as tech world models offer new promise for the future of its invention. While we are still early in this new movement, hackathons offer a valuable mechanism where valuable lessons can be learned that may have lasting impact on our industry’s approach and return us to a more inclusive and smarter version of the roots of discovery and problem solving in medicine and public health.

Further Reading & Analysis:
6 Insights from Health Hackathons around the World
Infographic on US Health Hackathons

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Matthew Hayward for building the database of all health focused hackathons and his contribution to this analysis.

[1] JAMA.



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