MIT GrandHack 2015: Hacking for good feels great


One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

While medicine has made significant strides, both treatment and survival rates are on the rise, there is much disparity in these statistics. Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, and for Latina women – breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and is the leading cause of cancer death.  

While there are many factors at play that may be leading to this trend amongst minorities, many studies have identified that early detection, appropriate treatment and access to follow up care are crucial to improving outcomes.  

Enter Dr. Naomi Ko, MD, an oncologist at Boston Medical Center. She regularly encounters patients with survivable cancers that miss or delay treatment due to what should be surmountable barriers: a lack of understanding, poor communication and coordination, and a fear of what is happening now and what will happen next.  Both experienced with and frustrated by what she observed, she took action and came to the MIT Hacking Medicine Grand Hack to see if she could develop a solution to address these challenges through technology – which is where I and 300+ strategists, designers, researchers and developers heard her pitch. And we were captivated.

In 24 hours, Dr. Ko had gathered a team of 14 assorted professionals – medical students, physicians, bench researchers, a lawyer, a pharmacist, and software developers. Our task over the next 24 hours was “simple”:  if the single most common piece of technology her population owned was their smartphone, how could we design a clinically-sound product that delivered better care, information, and comfort to breast cancer patients?

Our teams took a 2-pronged approach, integrating the mobile behaviors of patients with web or desktop-based physician monitoring tools. That’s a lot of user research, UX, design and coding in 24 hours, but we had a very big and very motivated team.

Cancer Companion iOS app is the patient’s window into her treatment. It outlines, visually and at a 4th grade reading level, the type and extent of the cancer the patient has, what her specific treatment plan is, where she should be expected to make decisions about that plan, what questions she may want to ask of her oncologist(s), and what she should expect both logistically and physically as she receives treatment. The website is a way for the Oncologist to connect with her and monitor progress through treatment, answer questions,  and push critical updates to the treatment plan directly to her.  Our solution, based on a human centered approach for both patient and physician, delivered on many of the challenges faced in healthcare today – timely access to care, patient engagement, and treatment adherence.

While it was amazing to hear the news that we won won 1st place in the Telemedicine Track (and theMerck Sponsor’s prize!), I knew I had joined the right team when we all agreed that the prize money associated with the Hackathon should be put back into Cancer Companion and Dr. Ko’s work. As we speak, members of the team are volunteering their own time doing market research, feature and development planning, and funding sourcing.

As I came away from the weekend exhausted but excited, mentally spent but intellectually stimulated, I thought quite a bit about how much potential events like this hold for healthcare and the challenges it faces. As an industry with a long history of solving problems with experimentation and iteration, healthcare and technology are well suited to work together and the urgency to find solutions faster has never been higher. The good news is, given the dozens of presentations just in the Telehealth track alone, the potential for disruption and new business opportunities are limitless but very tangible for both clinicians and technologists alike. I was glad to be a part of what could be a transformative experience for breast cancer patients and gratified to know that real results could be achieved in 48 hours or less. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Editor’s note:  Medullan congratulates Julliette Ehlert for being part of the winning team, but also thanks fellow Medullanites Rob Gifford and PJ Buddhari for taking part in the Grand Hack.  


Here is the official Grand Hack press release.

Contact Us

We’re Here To Help

Whether you’re ready to talk to someone right now or just want general information

Global HQ

240 Elm St., 2nd Floor Somerville, MA 02144