Hackathon Aims to Enhance Veterans’ Care through Public-Private Innovation

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To kick off a D.C. Hackathon, agency and industry insiders weighed in on driving innovation through federal collaboration.

Though partnerships between the federal government and industry stakeholders increasingly pioneer new innovations across the health care sector, evaluating the real impact of those collaborative projects isn’t always easy. 

To jumpstart the Hacking Medicine D.C. Grand Hack, innovators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Samsung and the Veterans Health Administration came together in Washington Thursday to discuss how to accelerate and assess potential improvements made through public-private partnerships. 

“In the government sector ... it’s perhaps a little bit harder to evaluate success from innovation,” Dr. Kenneth Kizer, chief health care transformation officer and senior executive vice president of Atlas Research, said. “In the private industry, when you get a good product, you make a gazillion dollars, that’s maybe a little easier to assess than in government where you have a different set of dynamics.”

The three-day hackathon this weekend will bring together engineers, clinicians, designers, developers and business leaders to brainstorm and build solutions that aim to enhance veterans’ access to the care that they need. During the opening panel, insiders weighed on how to drive and measure success around federal innovation. 

With nearly three decades of federal service under her belt, VHA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks Dr. Carolyn Clancy said the agency evaluates potential partnerships and the solutions they propose on how adaptable they are to a wide variety of health circumstances and veteran needs. 

“If something is extremely complicated or requires broadband sort of like oxygen, that is going to be a problem for some of our veterans who live in areas where the idea of being on wirefree, wireless internet all the time hasn’t even hit science fiction yet,” she explained. 

Clancy also noted that as federal and regulatory compliance becomes more and more pervasive across government and health care, success can be measured by the joy a project or product brings to the work that’s being done. She added that success is an incredible accelerant. 

“Any kind of innovation that helps you do your job better and makes it easier and, my god, if it’s fun then you are really home free,” Clancy said. “When you try something new and different perspectives work together, and it works and it actually solves a problem, people get completely juiced and energized, which is why we are so excited about this hackathon.” 

Former Senior Policy Advisor for Health Affairs at the Veterans Affairs Department Dr. Stephen Ondra said the VA’s “North Star” for innovation will always be whether or not the solution directly improves the lives of veterans. 

As an example, Ondra highlighted the government’s efforts to enhance interoperability between agencies through the Blue Button project. Brainstorming sessions with many agency insiders led to the button, which veterans and patients press to download all their health records. At the Blue Button Developers Conference this week, the administration also announced a new pilot that will help clinical providers directly access patients’ Medicare claims information to better understand their treatment histories. 

“In making veterans’ lives better, this translated to making lives better across the nation,” Ondra said. “And it has transcended administrations—that is success.” 

A neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who now works in the private sector, Ondra added that VA’s digital infrastructure, data and troves of electronic health records enable the agency to really bring innovative ideas to life. 

“For all the shots the VA takes, from organ transplant, to Blue Button, to everything in between, the VA has been a leader in innovation and will continue to be,” Ondra said. “You will never have a better partner to work with or a better mission.” 

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