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UM Hosts Rural Medicine Hackathon

Hacking Rural Medicine

Most of Montana’s hospitals are small and rural. And these are hard times for small town hospitals. The National Rural Health Association says about 300 rural hospitals are in danger of having to close in the next few years.

Monica Bourgeau is an executive with a federally funded project to help Montana hospitals adapt to the rapid changes in healthcare and survive.

"Rural healthcare is really facing a lot of kind of new and unique challenges right now."

Bourgeau’s “Better Health Partnership” has a conference every year. This year, they wanted to do something different. She’d heard about events the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, was doing, called Hacking Medicine, and sent them an email.

"And said, 'would you guys consider applying your model to rural medicine?' And I got a response back right away, and they said 'yes, absolutely, we are so excited,'" said Bourgeau. "We scheduled a call and that was back in September and we immediately jumped into action top start planning and here we are."

Here is the University of Montana Campus in Missoula.

The idea behind a hackathon is to bring bunch of people from diverse backgrounds together to brainstorm solutions to problems. In this case, there are plenty of rural healthcare people on hand to outline what some of their big challenges are.

And then, Bourgeau says, they mix  with a bunch of people from other disciplines.

"We have some physicians coming from as far away as Tennessee. We have engineers coming. We have students, both from the University of Montana and actually as far away as California and Oregon that are planning to attend," said Bourgeau. "We have some business entrepreneurs who are here who are just interested in getting involved the health care setting that may haven't been involved in health care before. We have some lawyers who are coming. Over 100 people registered, and they’re coming from 15 different states."

A video from a hacking event MIT did on the east coast makes them look really exciting and energized. It features a faculty advisor named Zen Chu.

"Now is one of the best times in the history of the world to be a health care entrepreneur, because with change comes all these opportunities that the existing institutions can’t address," Chu says in the video.

The rural medicine hackathon is being sponsored by the University of Montana’s Blackstone Launchpad, which helps UM students, faculty and alumni start new businesses.

One of the keynote speakers is John Legelis. Legelis works for a company called iVantage, which is helping Montana’s small hospitals gather data and make sense of it to help them survive.

He’s put together a database of rural hospital payment data for hackathon participants to play around with, Payment data can often lead to new ideas for making healthcare more efficient. Legelis says he doesn’t necessarily expect huge breakthroughs from a two and a half day event.

"What I’m hoping is that someone will be able to prototype a solution. It would be a high bar to be have something that's fully formed and actionable but certainly a proof of concept would be considered success."

The hackathon is organized like a competition. Groups get together to come up with and refine ideas. At the end of the conference, four health care and business experts from Montana judge them and name a winner. But organizer Monica Bourgeau says its more about coming up with a winning idea, or even specific solutions at the event itself.

"Actually one of the things that we kind of hope will come from this event as well is partnerships that will endure long after the event and so the networking and friendships that come from this type of event will last long after the weekend. That's what's really exciting to me, you don’t really know what kind of things can emerge from an event like this."

The “Hacking Rural Medicine” event kicks off tonight at the University of Montana, and runs all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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