“Hacking” Healthcare

8 09 2017
[Photo: Mayberry Health and Home]

I wish I had thought of this title before anyone else, but there is a book, scores of domains registered already, a lot of hand-wringing about evil hackers and I’m sure, a lot of events like this where people will try to hack healthcare to win contests. But this article isn’t really going to be about any of those things. This will be the first of a series of articles about how communities, thinkers and smart startups are taking back control of their healthcare.

Why does healthcare have to be hacked? In case it wasn’t painfully obvious, the state of healthcare in the US in 2017 is in basically the same shape that it has been for some time: too expensive, mediocre in terms of outcomes and nowhere near as safe as it should be. Compound that with epic gridlock in Washington and it becomes clear that these problems won’t be easily solved via policy. And yet, these constraints are forcing creativity. Think of it as the DIY movement in healthcare. In art, engineering and just about every endeavor, DIY is a concept that is near and dear to my heart and I want to celebrate it when it happens in healthcare.

So, let’s start with AI. So much hype.


Despite this hype, there is plenty to work with. While yes, AI is getting better at looking at x-rays or suggesting treatment options to physicians, the real value today comes from augmenting rather than replacing the caregiver. While teaching myself API.AI for a non-healthcare related project, I could see first hand the value of well designed tools to extend the caregiver relationship, leveraging the principles of CRM as well as the challenges inherent in training them. I like the chatbot, even though they still have a ways to go. Chatbots are hard to build well. If you’ve interacted with one, you likely figured it out pretty early on and hated it. But the technology is getting better and you will likely be engaging with many more bots  at your work or when you are applying for a job.

Some excellent use cases for bots include: improving adherence with provider recommendations (medication, diet, exercise) by gently nudging the patient via text messages to their phone or Facebook Messenger. Yes, HIPAA is hard. But it’s not insurmountable with a well crafted strategy. Also, most patients aren’t worried about the occasional reminder to eat better or work out via their phone after they leave the doctor’s office. And they work.


Another use case I love is augmenting a therapist for treating minor depression and other low-acuity behavioral health issues. Why aren’t we creating pathways for patients to get screened for depression in their doctor’s office and handed to an appropriate resource that doesn’t have to be the PCP? We know that depression is often associated with other chronic illness and that depression can prevent patients from adhering to medication and treatment plans, or just not showing at their doctor appointments. We also know that one-third of the adults that have major depressive episodes never see a professional. In addition to the costs of untreated illness, millions are needlessly suffering.

Here’s a hack worth doing: evidence-based chatbot tools overseen by a team of clinicians and technologists, regularly monitoring that the AI is providing quality support to patients and that it is aligned to their care plans and appropriately linked to technology.

If you read this far and you’re of a certain age and time, then maybe you’ll get this reference. At least it’s not  stock photography of people in lab coats in front of computers.



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