Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon has innovative solutions around obesity, diabetes and substance abuse; many from students

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

SOMERSET, Ky. – In just three days’ time, 160 people came up with 19 innovative solutions to three of Appalachian Kentucky’s most challenging health issues – diabetes, obesity and substance abuse – at the first-ever Massachusetts Institute of Technology Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon in Somerset Oct. 6-8.

The 19 teams, including six led by high-school students, presented their solutions to a panel of judges Saturday, Oct. 8, after spending less than 24 hours working on them. Participants came from diverse backgrounds and experiences and almost all were from Kentucky; the students took half the prizes.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers

“These challenges aren’t new. We’ve battled these demons for generations. We know a solution is not going to come overnight, but that isn’t going to stop us from persevering the pressing problems,” U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said during the opening session. “We are here to change our trajectory with hopes of saving lives in Southern and Eastern Kentucky through powerful efforts like this hack-a-thon.”

Rogers added, “We want to be holistically working to improve Southern and Eastern Kentucky from tourism to technology to infrastructure to health care. Our region suffers from the highest rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, you name it; we lead the nation.”

The event was brought to Kentucky by MIT and Shaping Our Appalachian Region, a bipartisan, non-profit effort to improve the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, co-founded by Rogers and then-Gov. Steve Beshear in 2013. It was facilitated by a team from MIT, which has facilitated more than 40 “Hacking Medicine” events worldwide.

“More and more, research ends up being a quintessential team sport with people from different disciplines coming together to work and to try to solve a common problem,” said Dr. Doug Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute.

Morgan Kirk, a WellCare Health Plans community advocate who worked in a group that focused on diabetes, said her group consisted of a provider, someone representing a managed-care organization, a computer engineer, a professor, and the chief operating officer of a medical company.

The top solutions won cash prizes up to $1,500 and the potential to work with business partners toward implementation. Cash and prize awards were also given for targeted issue solutions. Students walked away with half of the prizes, including the student-only award.

Pikeville High student winners from virtual
team “Simple Health.”  L-R: Ethan Francis,
 Devin Gayheart and Tori Gayheart

Thirty-eight students from Pikeville, Letcher County and Paintsville high schools participated virtually in the event, which was another first for a MIT Hacking Health event.

“They are on the forefront of what many of our other students I think will be doing in the near future in solving challenges that they know best in their local communities,” said Jim Tackett, readiness lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, who helped organize the student groups.

Tackett said the students came to the event with a desire to make a difference in the health of their communities. Two schools were participating during their fall breaks, he said, and one passed up homecoming to work on the project.

“That shows you the impact and the interest that they had in this project,” said Tackett, who is also executive director of Forward in the Fifth, a nonprofit educational organization for counties that are or have been in the Fifth Congressional District.

A Pikeville High group won the top prize in the obesity/diabetes category for their “Simple Health (555)” solution, which would create a mobile-phone application to encourage participants to drink five glasses of water per day, eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, and walk five minutes five times a day. They also won the Pikeville Medical Center Obesity and Diabetes Challenge to find an innovative way to motivate people to join weight-loss management programs.

A student group from Paintsville also won two prizes. Their plan would create an app for a chat room led by licensed professionals in which people would be required to interact before they could be prescribed any pain medications. The chat room is also meant to be used for social support.

This group won the student WellCare award for use of technology to help people access alternative supports for pain management and the Passport Health Plan substance-abuse contest that challenged participants to improve pain management among Medicaid beneficiaries.

Another Pikeville student group won the WellCare challenge for substance abuse for their idea to create an app that provides other options for pain management, as well as peer-to-peer interactions.

Second prize in the obesity/diabetes category went for a plan to create an online wellness program to address a lack of access to out-of-clinic preventive care. Third place went for an app to get students to become more active.

The Passport diabetes challenge award went for a plan called “Sugar Busters” that would add a preventive screening checklist to the back of Medicaid cards, including pre-diabetic screening. This checklist, along with incentives and scheduling options, would also be available on an app.

Groups tackled obesity, diabetes and substance abuse.

“This has been really enlightening, rubbing elbows with smart people and brainstorming ideas to solve a problem that is so prevalent,” said Anne Punoose, who was part of the “Sugar Busters” group. “Not one single person can put this problem to bed and as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes all of us, united, to solve this problem of diabetes and obesity in Appalachia.” Punoose is a computer engineer who works remotely for Salesforce in California.

The top award for the substance abuse category went to a group with a plan for a mail-in needle exchange program, called “Holler Exchange.” Their plan would require an initial face-to-face visit, a committed “buddy” who would be responsible for turning in the needles and an ongoing tele-health conference.

One of the members in this group from Pike County said that even though the county has approved a needle-exchange program, it is underutilized, citing limited hours of operation, transportation barriers and social stigma as reasons. The county is Kentucky’s largest in land area.

The other prizes in the substance-abuse category went for programs involving naloxone, which can stop overdoses in progress. Second place went for an app to connect providers and volunteers who were trained in how to administer naloxone, sort of like an Uber app for the drug. Third place went to a proposed “nalox box” that would send a signal to notify emergency personnel via satellite when the box was opened to notify them of a potential overdose. This plan would also create a simple way for children to give naloxone to their parents.

Neva Francis, vice-president of Healthy Communities for Kentucky One Health‘s central-east region, said that she had appreciated working with “really smart people” toward a solution for diabetes in Appalachia, but she also added, “To be realistic and yet innovative has been difficult.”

Dr. William Hacker

So, what’s next?

Dr. William Hacker, chair of SOAR’s Wellness Advisory Committee and former state health commissioner, said the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sent senior officials to the event, wanted to be briefed on the innovative health solutions that came from the hack-a-thon to see if they would be able to use their resources to help implement any of them.

“The team from MIT was really impressed with the solutions that the teams came up with and are thinking about trying to connect us back to a major meeting they are going to sponsor in Boston to use what we’ve done in Somerset as a role model that they want to broadcast around the country,” Hacker said. “But most importantly, we generated optimism that something can be done at the community level.”

SOAR’s sponsors for the event were Passport, WellCare, the Pikeville hospital, Community Trust Bank, Lindsey Wilson College, Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital, the University Of Pikeville College Of Osteopathic Medicine/A-Optic, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Ugly Mugz Coffee.

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