Coding contest shows how big data can improve health care

The website No Sleep Kills looks to use health care data to show how sleep apnea can factor into auto accidents

A recent coding competition in the Boston area brought together IT professionals, medical workers and others with an interest in health IT to show how data analytics can improve health care.

The Health 2.0 Boston Code-a-thon, held May 11 and 12, featured approximately 85 participants who formed groups to create, in approximately one day, an application that turns large amounts of health care data into useful information for patients and care providers.

The winning team created the No Sleep Kills website, where people can access information on how poor sleeping patterns can lead to drowsy drivers and auto accidents. The website aims to draw attention to the link between sleep apnea, a condition in which people temporarily stop breathing during sleep, and vehicular crashes.

Given the content's time constraints, Joel Sutherland and Guy Shechter, two members of the winning four-person team, noted that the site is still under development. They, along with team members David Dinatale and Amber Zimmermann, hope to incorporate additional information sources, allowing the site to offer deeper analysis.

Shechter wants to incorporate anonymized patient data from Athena Health, an event partner that offers health-care providers electronic medical record software.

"The whole goal of getting more health data digital is so you can start doing meaningful things with data," Shechter said. "If we can get access to Athena Health data on actual patients we can extract some of the risk factors we are looking at."

For now, people who visit the site can enter personal information, including age, weight and number of poor sleep nights, to determine if they are sleep deprived. For medical professionals, the portal offers information on determining whether their patients have poor sleep patterns.

The team would like the site to eventually include Medicare cost data to show that sleep apnea testing may help lower health care costs.

Data analysis highlights how a common health issue has consequences that can greatly impact lives, explained Sutherland, who works for Mitre, which manages U.S. government research centers, but who entered the contest as an individual.

"We need action items that say this is a problem," he said. "Here we can show that paying attention to sleep apnea improves fatal crash rates. If you can show that, then policy makers can say this work actually saves lives more than just treating sleep apnea."

The portal culled information from several sources, including publicly available data from U.S. government offices such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The group selected the issue of sleep deprivation after looking over the website healthypeople.gov, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up in 2010 as part of a program aimed at improving health in the country over the next decade.

"We saw that sleep health was a new topic and we basically saw the relationship of sleep to driving related accidents and a desire to reduce that number," said Shechter, who along with Zimmermann and Dinatale works for Philips Healthcare. The group participated in the competition as individuals, not employees.

The foursome shared the IT duties. Sutherland, who didn't know his teammates until the contest, served as the lead developer.

"On the server side I used Sinatra, which was like a really simplified version of Ruby on Rails," he said.

Zimmermann and Shechter did data visualization and Dinatale manipulated the data and handled filtering, Sutherland added. The team turned to the cloud for data processing by utilizing Amazon Elastic MapReduce, and used Tableau software for data analysis.

Zimmermann also added clinical experience from her job as a nurse informaticist.

The squad took the first place prize of US$4,000 because they stuck to the contest's theme of using big data by incorporating several data sources, said Deb Linton, the event coordinator who also served as a judge.

The team also presented their project at Spring Fling 2012: Matchpoint Boston, an event held on May 14 that provided the opportunity for health IT entrepreneurs to present their ideas before an audience that included health care providers Aetna and Kaiser Permanente.

These kinds of meetings prove important for health IT, since technology can only reach patients and care givers if the tech community works with the established health care system, explained Matthew Holt, co-chairman of the Health 2.0 organization, which also put on the Matchpoint event.

"Health care is not a consumer focused business," Holt noted. "You can't do Instagram and get 30 million people to pick up the app," he said, referring to the popular smartphone photo application that Facebook recently acquired. "When you have a large company say yes [to a technology], its much easier to use them as a distribution channel."

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