The Department of Veterans Affairs is tapping some of the world's brightest minds to address patient challenges, from geographical barriers to care and timely appointments to debilitating health conditions such as amputations and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Veterans Health Administration is participating in a series of problem-solving sessions this year to address its biggest health care challenges.
Called MIT "GrandHacks," the exercises bring together teams of students, entrepreneurs, tech gurus, health providers, patients, insurers and academicians to find solutions to problems in a short amount of time -- in most cases for the MIT events, a weekend.
A Boston GrandHack in March produced three projects now under incubation at VA medical centers: an app that features approaches to suicide prevention, a program that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to improve understanding of the veteran patient population, and an app that interprets facial expressions and prompts responses to convey intent for patients with spinal cord injuries who can't speak or use adaptive speech technology.
The next GrandHack is this weekend in Washington, D.C.
"When we say 'solve,' we really mean build concepts and prototypes to design solutions to a specific problem. They may be in the early stages of development, but what these concepts provide are tangible solutions that we can bring into VA," said Suzanne Shirley, the VA's entrepreneur in residence.
Over the weekend, participants will break into tracks -- at the D.C. event, the focus is access to health care, mental health and professional burnout, and rare and orphan diseases -- and pitch their challenges. Teams form around problems they believe they can solve. Over the next 36 hours, they then design and develop solutions and prototypes.
On Sunday, taking a cue from the TV show "Shark Tank," they pitch their ideas to subject matter experts and, sometimes, venture capitalists looking to invest.
In months to a year, they may see their ideas in use at the VA. This year, Podimetrics, a Somerville, Massachusetts-based company, was awarded $13.4 million to develop its product, the Podimetrics SmartMat, and introduce it to every VA medical center.
Developed at an MIT hackathon six years ago, the SmartMat detects diabetic foot ulcers before they become a problem requiring amputation.
"Twenty-four percent of our patient population has Type 2 diabetes … and amputations are one of the costliest treatments to provide in health care. We are working to eliminate the need for any diabetic foot ulcer amputation moving forward," Shirley said.
Chris Balcik, vice president of federal government sales for Samsung Electronics America, will serve as a mentor and facilitator at this weekend's hackathon. As a GrandHack frequent attendee, he said he is consistently amazed at the creativity that occurs at these events.
"The biggest thing we gain out of this is [that] we have really started to drive partnerships, partnerships [that] are an integral and arguably critical component to addressing the biggest challenges facing the VA and health care community at large," Balcik said. "We are starting to break down those public-private barriers."
Shirley said the emphasis on innovation and technology to assist veterans helps drive solutions.
"Every generation of veterans faces unique challenges, ones we can't possibly predict. Just 15 years ago, no one could have predicted the extent of polytrauma, loss of limb, PTSD. And there's still so much we don't understand about the rising rate of veteran suicide. ... We can't possibly solve all of these problems alone," Shirley said.