By Casey-Parker Bell
Sometimes, there are problems that seem too big to solve. In Appalachia, some of these “too big to solve” problems fall into the category of health outcomes. The region consistently ranks highest in the nation for the poor health status of its residents. Despite the dedicated efforts of many health professionals and advocates, the numbers don’t budge much. This persistent lack of improvement can wear down even the most passionate change agents.
For the participants at Shaping Our Appalachian Region’s Appalachian Health Hackathon, the goal was to get re-energized and take a fresh look at some of these difficult health problems using a problem-solving approach borrowed from the culture of computer programmers: hacking.
The event took place at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset and brought together more than 160 concerned Kentuckians to “hack” into three major regional issues: diabetes, obesity, and the opioid epidemic. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Hacking Medicine program facilitated two days of intense brainstorming and creative thinking in order to generate unexpected solutions to these problems. KET was there to cover it as part of our Inside Opioid Addiction initiative.
MIT is consistently listed as one of the top universities in the United States and their Hacking Medicine Program has conducted more than 40 hacking events worldwide. But, this is the first time an event has been held in a rural community. “This first-ever hackathon in Appalachia was a great success,” said SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett.
Collaboration Leads to Action-Based Solutions
Participants, or “hackers” as they were called at the event, individually presented the health problem they see in their community and what they believed were potential solutions as part of the “pitching period.”
The presentations allow the hackers to hear problems from perspectives they may not have heard before and understand who has similar interests before they create groups. Once groups were formed, the hackers worked collaboratively to come up with action-based solutions to each health problem.
Multiple groups chose to address issues related to the opioid epidemic, from trying to improve access to the newest research for patients and physicians, to creating a way for substance users in rural communities to have access to clean needles.
Prizes for Innovative Thinking
Prizes were awarded for the most innovative solutions to help with obesity and diabetes, and substance abuse. In the substance abuse category, the proposal “Holler Exchange” won first place. Holler Exchange would provide mail-in needle exchange to combat the spread of hepatitis C and HIV transmission.
Second place was “ODX Naloxone delivery,” an app that would connect providers and volunteers to people who are experiencing a drug overdose. The app would send out a notification to the nearest responders at the time of a suspected overdose.
First place in the obesity and diabetes category was “Simple Health (555),” a proposal for an app created by a student group from Pikeville. The app aims to encourage healthier lifestyles by tracking participants as they attempt to drink five glasses of water, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables, and walk for five minutes five times a day.
Dr. Doug Lowy, director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Rep. Hal Rogers from Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District kicked off the Hackathon with speeches. KET associate producer Lillie Ruschell created the video of the event.