Hacking for better health

Doc McCoy, eat your heart out. We might not yet have Star Trek's teleportation, but computers today are now small enough to fit in your pocket. They know your name.

Doc McCoy, eat your heart out.

We might not yet have Star Trek’s teleportation, but computers today are now small enough to fit in your pocket. They know your name. They can recognize your face.

They can even take your heart rate, give advice about pain medication and print a custom-molded cast for your broken finger.

And they’re way cooler than a clunky old tricorder.

Smartphone apps could also be the future of health-care in the North. At least, that’s if any of the participants in this weekend’s northern health-care hack-a-thon have anything to say about it.

Organized by YuKonstruct, the event drew more than 100 innovators from across western Canada to the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse. The idea was simple: brainstorm an idea to help improve health care in the North, then spend 48 hours ‘hacking’ it to come up with a viable product.

On Friday, anyone with an idea got to pitch it in public. Teams then spent the weekend fleshing out their idea before presenting to a panel of event judges.

Given the time constraints and the power of information technology, the majority of the projects focused on using apps to help engage, inform and empower health-care patients and better connect them with services.

One app, called Yukon Baby, aims to be a digital pregnancy pamphlet that can give expectant parents the information they need, while connecting them with doctors or midwives and other new parents in the territory.

Thirteen-year-old wiz-kid Sam Fleming pitched four different projects on Friday. By Sunday, he’d used a 3-D printer to fabricate customizable splints for a broken finger. The material used would let doctors tailor splits and casts to their patients.

One of the most impressive projects to come out of the weekend was social worker Leigh Ayton and web developer Andrew Kalek’s community voicemail Reach Me app, which aims to provide homeless people – or anyone without their own phone – a type of online answering machine service.

Ayton has years worth of experience working with homeless people in Whitehorse and other cities. She said she identified the need for a service like this years ago, but could never find the right venue to make it a reality.

“Let me tell you a story about someone we’ll call Daniel,” Ayton said during her presentation.

“Like many people, he’s been living on the street but he has some experience working in mining camps.

“It’s spring, and companies are starting to hire for the summer. He needs a stable place to live when he’s between work because his risk for relapse into drugs and alcohol is significantly higher when he’s staying in the shelter,” she said.

Daniel is trying to get his feet under himself. He has had some strong leads from potential landlords and mining companies, but because he doesn’t have a stable home or phone number, by the time those people get a hold of him the opportunity is gone.

His doctor and community health nurse also have difficulty getting a hold of him, which is impacting his treatment for hepatitis C.

Some months he’s able to afford a pay-as-you-go phone with no voice mail, and other months he leaves the shelter number on forms.

“But that can be stigmatizing, and can mean a lost opportunity for jobs or housing,” Ayton explained.

That’s where Reach Me comes in.

Someone like Daniel would be assigned his own local 867 phone number and a corresponding online voicemail box that he can dial in to from any phone.

“That’s important so that potential employers and landlords will see Daniel as any other Yukoner,” she said.

To prove how simple the idea is, Ayton and Kalek placed a call to Daniel’s number from their cell phones live on stage.

“Welcome to Reach Me,” a digitized voice echoed through the conference room. “You’ve reached the voice mail for Daniel.”

“Hi Daniel. I’ve reviewed your application and I want to talk to you about a job opportunity, but it’s really time sensitive. Call me back, thanks,” Ayton said.

Then, on cue, Kalek dialed in to the service himself and picked up the message.

There are similar virtual voicemail box services that operate based on a 1-800 number that have been successful in other jurisdictions, Ayton said.

But with her app, the mailbox is only half of the service. Reach Me can also send out mass public health alerts for things like outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections, health clinic hours or bad batches of heroin and other street drugs.

For clients who have pay-as-you-go phones with no voicemail, they can get free text alerts when they have a new Reach Me voicemail waiting for them.

The service costs only $2 per person per month, and would go a long way towards reducing barriers to housing and improving health outcomes for many marginalized people in Whitehorse, Ayton said.

Ayton and Kalek won the people’s choice award for their project and, of all the winners, Reach Me appears the closest to actually being implemented in the Yukon.

“I wasn’t at all surprised by this,” said Health Minister Doug Graham, who presented the award.

“It was my personal choice, because I can see this as something that could be rolled out in the territory,” he said.

Given the high praise, Ayton said she plans to capitalize on the momentum gathered at the Hacking Health event and would love to see her idea alive in the real world.

“I’d definitely like to (roll it out),” she said. “We still need to speak to some community partners but it looks good right now.”

All told there were 17 different ideas pitched, and eight viable projects to come out of the weekend. Whitehorse is so far the smallest Canadian city to host a Hacking Health event. The next smallest was Edmonton, with a population of 730,000, which produced 12 viable projects.

As Hacking Health host Ben Sanders said, from those numbers it’s clear that Yukon is well on its way to replacing its historic gold rush with a 21st-century “code rush.”

Contact Jesse Winter at