Tufts MedStart hackathon offers lessons in disrupting med school

Dr. Naren Gupta (left) and his team at the MedStart hackathon this weekend. Photo courtesy Dr. Gupta.
Dr. Naren Gupta (left) and his team at the MedStart hackathon this weekend. Photo courtesy Dr. Gupta.

There is no shortage of hackathons in this town, but when Dr. Naren Gupta first heard about MedStart, a hackathon hosted at Tufts University School of Medicine this past weekend, he immediately signed up. The vascular surgeon and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School said he doesn’t often get the chance to break out of his bubble, and that’s an issue.

“I think that the amount of talent in Boston is incredible,” he said. “The problem is we’re siloed in our different sectors. I’m a surgeon and scientist and I have almost no access to developers and designers.”

On Friday, Gupta got that access. He and his team barely slept all weekend as they worked on their project, and in 36 hours, they had a working prototype for SIM-VR, a tool that uses the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to simulate stressful scenarios in hospitals, while measuring the biometric responses of the subjects. The goal of the device is to help train health care workers to navigate high-pressure situations and avoid burnout. The group took home the $2,500 grand prize for the top idea.

This weekend’s events were the third such MedStart hackathon that Tufts has hosted, but it was the first that focused on ways to innovate the medical school experience. It’s a mission that resonated with Gupta and many other participants in the weekend’s events.

“When people go to medical school… something happens in the process of training and residency,” said Dr. Alisa Niksch, a pediatric cardiologist at Tufts Medical Center who helped organize the weekend’s event. She explained that while in med school, students develop a mode of thinking that is conditioned to be very risk averse — a good thing when it comes to caring for patients and avoiding harm — but that fear of failing can be stifling.

“Our creativity dies a bit,” she said, “and that’s a really hard thing when we see so many health care challenges and know that we as physicians could be taking a greater part in making improvements.”

“We’ve been teaching physicians the same way for the last 100 years,” said Rohan Jotwani, a medical student who helped lead MedStart. “The lecture model of med school is totally outdated… We need to fill that gap and make medicine a lot more about participatory learning.”

With that in mind, more than 100 participants, many of whom came into town for from sites as far-flung as Brazil or California, set out to disrupt the med school model.

Teams of developers, students, doctors and patient advocates worked on projects like MoveMed, a wristband that helps medical students learn how to intubate patients (every year, it costs over $45 million to pay for dental fixes in patients who have had their teeth chipped as a medical professional tries to insert a tube in their trachea). The team used a muscle-tracking Myo wristband to train students in the proper technique; the band vibrates when their technique is off.

Another crowd favorite was Uptake, which uses IBM’s Watson technology to determine the effectiveness of medical school lectures. The computer listens as the instructor talks in class, and then compares the subjects covered to over 30,000 questions posed on the medical board exams. It sends a quiz directly to students’ smartphones, and allows the lecturer to get instant feedback on how well the class was received and what subject areas needed more attention.

The MedStart hackathon is a reflection of where medical education needs to go, said Dr. Paul Beninger, who heads the MD/MBA program at Tufts’ medical school. “Events like this help the next generation of physicians develop the interpersonal and social skills needed to thrive in medicine’s future: it’s as important to interact and be comfortable with engineers, coders, business people, and others as it is to be comfortable with hospital or practice administrators and other health care practitioners.”

Education today is changing rapidly, he added. “Medical schools need to prepare physicians-in-training to be the healthcare leaders of tomorrow by preparing them for where medicine will be in the coming decades, not where it is today.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
Follow Janelle on Twitter