Tag Archives: Innovation

Hackathons: More Than a Spectator Event

This article originally appeared in Healthcare Information Management & Communications Canada

In just a few short years the Hacking Health hackathon has become a fixture at the annual Canadian eHealth conference.  While many eHealth attendees find the pitches and solution presentations highly entertaining (particularly with the high-energy Hacking Health co-founder Luc Sirois as the master of ceremonies), these hackathons are more than a spectator event … they are an opportunity for attendees to share their experience and expertise to make a difference.

Hacking Health held its first hackathon five years ago in Montreal.  Since then, Hacking Health has grown to 45 active chapters around the world.  In 2016, these local chapters organized and hosted 161 events including 28 hackathons.

I was initially skeptical of the value of hackathons.  In a December 2013 Technology for Doctors commentary, I noted that “for all the good intentions of those involved, I am not yet sold on the value of hackathons for the Canadian healthcare system, at least as they are currently constituted.”

I was reminded of my initial reticence when I attended the first Ottawa health hackathon in April.   While I must confess that I am not a fan of the over-the-top enthusiasm reminiscent of a multi-level marketing event that seems to be the hallmark of Hacking Health events, I enjoyed the opening night pitches until I noticed the Hacking Health tagline emblazoned on an organizer’s t-shirt:

“Bringing Innovation to Healthcare”

I have an almost allergic reaction whenever the word “innovation” is mentioned.   It has become an over-used word that is quickly losing any sense of real meaning.  As I proclaimed in my “Innovation Rant” at eHealth 2014, I am aghast that a word once reserved to herald inventions such as the personal computer, the cell phone and the Internet has been reduced to a marketing buzzword used to describe products as banal as peanut butter pop-tarts.

Equally troubling, is the “element of hubris to medical hackathons” described by Brian Palmer, Chief Explainer for Slate.  In an April 2014 article entitled “Are Hackathons the Future of Medical Innovation,” Mr. Palmer notes that there are many problems that experts around the world have been trying to solve for years and that there is no shortage of ideas for how best to address them.

If we consider the advances in medical sciences, it is hard not to think of the health sector as innovative. A March 2015 McLean’s article noted that “recent innovations in modern medicine are nothing short of miraculous,” citing kidney transplants performed with minimal surgical invasion via robots and prosthetic eyes that give partial sight to the blind as but two examples.

Yet, the same McLean’s article also observes that “despite advancements in the OR, something as simple as locating the right equipment, or the right doctor, can often leave hospital staff feeling like they’re stuck playing a game of hide-and-seek.”

A similar theme can be found in many of my wife’s blog posts on the patient experience.   Writing about wait times, Tracy (aka The Madness Maven) cites the impact that simple changes can make. For example, a screen that displays a patient’s first name and the number of minutes until they can be seen can have a dramatic impact on the patient experience and, she suspects, the organization’s bottom line.

So, while the Hacking Health vision is certainly ambitious and perhaps even a bit audacious, it makes more sense if innovation is viewed not as an outcome but as a means to an end.

Scott Anthony, author of “The Little Black Book of Innovation”, offers a simple definition of this outcome – “something different that has impact.” These impacts need not be momentous or life changing but, like the screen showing the current wait mentioned in Tracy’s blog post, are felt and appreciated by those to whom they matter.

When viewed from this perspective, the role of Hacking Health in driving change in the health sector is much clearer.  Quite simply, Hacking Health creates opportunities for people who might not otherwise collaborate to tackle healthcare challenges not easily addressed within the walls of any one organization.

The power of the collaborations that Hacking Health seeks to promote is enhanced by the diversity of the participants’ skills and experiences. While media attention of the recent Ottawa hackathon focused on developers, designers, and physicians (and ignored other groups such as patients), the collaborative process that Hacking Health promotes thrives on diversity.

This year Hacking Health is collaborating with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) to tackle workplace mental health and wellbeing at the eHealth 2017 hackathon.

The eHealth hackathon offers a unique opportunity for everyone attending the show to participate in the hackathon process.  I encourage everyone to spend an hour during the conference visiting the various teams as they develop their solutions.

Be more than spectator. Ask the teams what they are trying to achieve.  Offer your feedback.   Share your experiences.  You might just have the insight they need to make a breakthrough.  You might also learn something new that you can apply in your own organization.

You can check out  Tracy’s blog at themadnessmaven.ca


Innovation Rant

This article appears in the most recent edition of Healthcare Information Management & Communications Canada magazine:

Why do bad things happen to good words? What did the word “innovation”,along with its siblings, “innovate”,“innovative” and “innovator”, do that was so despicable, so heinous as to end up in buzzword hell?

Once reserved to herald inventions that had a profound impact on humankind such as Edison’s light bulb or Marconi’s radio, “innovation” is now used to describe life changing developments such as a new flavour of pop tart. As someone who carefully assesses every word for its impact, I wince more often than not when I see this once powerful word reduced to marketing hype.

To what extent is the word “innovation” overused? According to a December 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal, 197 companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index used the term during third quarter shareholder calls in 2013, nearly double the amount from an identical quarter in 2007. This same article – “Is a Peanut Butter Pop-Tart an Innovation” – claims that “companies aren’t just using ‘innovation’ to define breakthrough projects that led to new technology or products; they’re also using the term to describe minor product tweaks and next-generation product features.”

Companies are not the only ones guilty of making liberal use of “innovation” and its derivatives. So too are individuals. According to LinkedIn, “Innovative” has made the list of its members 10 most overused buzzwords for each of the last four years and is the only word to have done so.

Writing on his own blog, Scott Berkun, author of the 2007 book “The Myths of Innovation”, claims:

“Instead of saying ‘we are smart’, ‘we are good’, or ‘we are willing to try new ideas’, messages that can be examined for truth, the word innovation is thrown down ambiguously, as if it were a replacement for having a message, or stating one clearly.”

Echoing Mr. Berkun’s sentiments, Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, suggests in a December 2013 HBR Blog Network article that the word innovation is “quickly losing whatever meaning it once had.” Mr. Taylor notes that few of the companies and leaders who aspire to make a difference “use the word ‘innovation’ to describe their strategy – implicitly or explicitly they understand that it has been sapped of all substance.” What they do instead, according to Mr. Taylor, is “offer rich and vivid descriptions of what they hope to do, where they hope to get, and why it matters.”

Is innovation the goal to which all organizations should aspire? Must all change be innovative?

According to a May 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Scott Berkun believes that what most people call an innovation is just a “very good product”. He chooses to reserve the word innovation for “world civilization changing inventions like electricity, the printing press and the telephone.” In this same article, Matt Roberts, CEO of online restaurant-reservation company OpenTable, states that “change comes more from a process than an end product” and refers to this process as “optimization” rather than “innovation”.

Perhaps the problem is that we are focusing on innovation as an outcome. Consider the peanut butter pop-tart that has become the cautionary tale about overuse of the word “innovation”. While I think that most people will agree that a peanut butter pop-tart is hardly innovative, maybe the process to produce one is difficult and fraught with challenges. A different and novel approach may have been needed to overcome these challenges.

What if we think about innovation not as an outcome but as a means to an end? Writing in Wired Magazine, Michael O’Bryan, founder of the innovation consulting company 360 Thinking suggests that innovation isn’t about what we produce but how we approach solving problems and adapting to an ever changing world. In a November 2013 article entitled “Innovation: The Most Important and Overused Word in America”, Mr. O’Bryan writes:

“Specifically, we need people to possess a series of thinking skills and behavioral traits that result in their ability to discover, develop, and test ideas and solutions that will result in positive changes not only their prospective fields but also in their daily lives. Therefore, innovation should not be discussed as a specific term but as a series of skills and behaviors that a person must possess to be innovative.”

Scott Anthony, author of “The Little Black Book of Innovation”, offers a simple definition of this outcome – “something different that has impact.” These impacts need not be momentous or life changing but, like the peanut butter pop-tart, are felt and appreciated by those to whom they matter.

Like Mr. O’Bryan, Mr. Anthony believes that innovation is a process by which change that has an impact is achieved. In a May 2012 HBR Blog Network article, My O’Bryan states that innovation is a “discipline to be mastered and managed”, one that is “hard work” and
“takes significant practice.”

Despite its unfortunate transformation into an overused buzzword, innovation is still an important concept, particularly in healthcare. Scott Anthony believes that “far from becoming a cliché, innovation will be as important to future leaders as strategy and operational excellence is to current ones.” Maybe we just need to practice it more and talk it about it less.

What are your thoughts on innovation? Is it an overused term? Is innovation a means to end rather than the end itself? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.



Yet another way that the South West LHIN is engaging vendors

Glenn Lanteigne and his team at the South West LHIN continue to find new and innovative ways to engage the vendor community.    Last fall they instituted the highly successful Vendor Friday series that offers individual vendors the opportunity to meet with LHIN staff plus invited members of the health community. Recognizing the opportunity that a quickly evolving and rapidly growing range of Consumer eHealth technologies presents, Glenn and his team recently announced the first Consumer eHealth Innovation session.

According to a recent chat with Glenn, the Consumer eHealth Innovations sessions will be held periodically throughout year so that vendors can meet with health service providers, physicians and others interested in emerging Consumer eHealth solutions to explore how these technologies can support the LHIN’s eHealth Strategic Plan. The first session will take place on  Thursday, June 30th, at the University of Western Ontario’s Research Park Convergence Centre.  The invitation on the South West LHIN web site states that attendees will “not only learn about the latest developments in personal health records, patient monitoring, consumer navigation of the health care system, and mobile technologies”, they will also “see how these and other tools support the LHIN’s eHealth Strategic Plan.”

Given the significant interest in Consumer eHealth, I expect that the limited number of spaces for this event will go quickly.  RSVP by June 23, either by calling 519-640-2592 or emailing Jordan.lange@LHINS.ON.CA.



“Innovation has some risks. Take some risks.”

James Norrie, associate dean of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Business, recently offered CIOs and other gathered for a recent CIO Canada Exchange conference advice about innovation.   According to an article in IT World Canada,  Mr. Norrie stated that “innovation isn’t about strategy” and “Strategy is about what your company does, or differs from competitors. Innovation is about how strategy gets executed.”     He further advised the participants that “Innovation has some risks.  Take some risks.”

What does Mr. Norrie’s presentation have to do with eHealth?  Well, at the recent OHA eHealthAchieve conference, I heard more than one person talk about the need for more innovation in the application of IT to healthcare.   According to Mr. Norrie, innovation requires risk-taking which implies the occasional failure.   So, if you accept Mr. Norrie’s contention that we need to take some risks in order to innovate, then we also need to celebrate failure and to share the lesson learned.