Sharp minds will focus on solutions to Appalachian health woes

Dr. William Hacker
Dr. William Hacker

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 150 people from across the commonwealth, the directors of both the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse — all will be descending on Somerset on Oct. 6 in an unprecedented event.

The Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon will bring together diverse minds united in their interest in solving the region’s greatest health challenges. Teams of people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise will collaborate within a limited time frame and focus on specific problems. By diagnosing the issue from multiple perspectives, the process creates innovative, disruptive ideas and solutions.

MIT’s Hacking Medicine program has held more than 40 events worldwide, but this is the first time it has held one in Appalachia. Shaping Our Appalachian Region, with the help of the Centers for Disease Control, is bringing the program to Kentucky.

Problems related to the poor overall health in Appalachia — especially in the areas of obesity, diabetes and substance abuse — are impacting our families, communities and economy. We must improve results, reduce the incidence of chronic disease and begin to turn the tide on the consequences of the massive substance abuse epidemic.

That’s why SOAR issued a public invitation to gather the brightest minds — from health to business and entrepreneurs to information technologists to innovators and engineers to social workers, patients and students.

Other hack-a-thons have spawned technologies solving real-world problems and creating new businesses. Examples include an infant resuscitator device designed to help prevent newborns from dying of breathing problems, which kill 1.8 million newborns each year; and mobile technology to help primary-care physicians and patients manage chronic diseases and encourage sustained healthful living practices.

Participants in the Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon will implement this problem-solving technique used by the technology companies like Google. Here’s how it will work:

The event will kick off Thursday, Oct. 6, with a reception at the Center for Rural Development. Keynote speakers include Congressman Hal Rogers; Dr. Doug Lowy, director of the National Cancer Institute; and Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The reception also will include an official IGNITE event, which will allow up to eight presenters to deliver high-powered five-minute presentations meant to enlighten and inspire participants.

The hack-a-thon will start at 8 a.m. Friday, Oct. 7. It will be facilitated by MIT, and 150 people from across the commonwealth who have pre-registered will participate, free of charge. They will work within small teams to tackle substance abuse and obesity/diabetes — from problem to solution.

In addition, the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative will live broadcast the event into two offsite locations, where it will host three teams of five to six high-schoolers from the SOAR region. These students will be assisted by onsite mentors and MIT staff.

The event will end Saturday afternoon as teams present their solutions to a panel of judges. Participants will have the chance to win the most innovative solution in two tracks — obesity/diabetes and substance abuse. Prizes include up to $1,500 for the winning teams, recognition and the potential to work with business incubators and accelerators. Additional prizes are available for participants who work on specific problems posed by our sponsors at Passport Health Plan.

The hack-a-thon is an opportunity to energize a movement to find innovative solutions to the health disparities that have plagued our region for generations. It will inspire ideas and ignite solutions to benefit our entire commonwealth for generations to come.

Jared Arnett is executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. Dr. William Hacker is a member of the SOAR advisory board.