Feature article

Hacking Heart Care: How Software Meets Science to Shape the Future of Cardiology

GE Healthcare’s open-invitation hackathons take place at the crossroads of technical and commercial development

Imagine a future where you could tap through an app marketplace until you found the absolutely perfect application for your needs — one that paired not only with the health technology you use, but with your greater goals, patient flow, and system setup, too.

That future could dramatically change the way software and technology work together in the healthcare space, and it’s one that Eigil Samset, digital manager of cardiovascular research & development at GE Healthcare, sees as a distinct possibility.

It’s all thanks to the emergence of new ways to crowdsource great ideas, something GE Healthcare has already launched through the likes of open-invitation “hackathons” to develop breakthrough apps.

“Through hackathons, we can engage with third-party organizations and companies — many of them startups — to collaborate with us in creating an ecosystem around our products,” Samset said. “The events are designed to help developers learn about our products and how to interact with them to create integrated apps — like artificial intelligence, for example — that add value to cardiovascular ultrasound examinations or studies.”

Ultimately, the goal is to offer enriched experiences for users of GE Healthcare products: “What we want to see happen is to create a marketplace, like an App Store, where third-party companies can enter their apps to accompany our products,” he added.

The Developer Partnership Program

Those efforts are part of GE Healthcare’s Developer Partnership Program (DPP), which fields ideas in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, image processing, visualization, analytics, and more so that medical technologies can fare and function in real-world health settings like hospitals and research institutions.1

According to the DPP site, the opportunities span the gamut of software meets science:

  • Desktop apps that can serve as tools for 3D volume quantification, surgical planning, and 3D printing.
  • Streaming apps that enable virtual reality, augmented reality, and AI-based visualizations of ejection fraction and more.
  • Integrated apps that address user needs like automatic segmentation, quantification, and diagnostic support.

Putting Technical Ideas into Commercial Action

In November 2018, the program organized its first hackathon, held in Boston. Nearly 20 companies and some university groups participated in the 1.5-day event, which involved a half-day of trainings and education about GE Healthcare’s products followed by a free-for-all hackathon and demo-sharing to get ideas percolating.

“We had a few talks by GE Healthcare staff to explain our technology and the opportunity, just so attendees could learn about the field and how to write their app so that it’s compatible with the GE Healthcare cardiovascular ultrasound technology,” Samset said. “After that, they got started in groups. Some people chose to work exclusively with developers from their own company, while others collaborated with others from other institutions.”

“We gave them the tools they needed to make their apps work for ultrasound technology, and nearly everyone had done some homework ahead of time and came with ideas on things they wanted to try,” he added.

That cross-collaboration structure is part of what makes the hackathons so engaging, and productive too, Samset noted.

“We had some participants who made really impressive progress,” he added. “Some of them even showed how apps that were running separately before could nicely complement the GE Healthcare product ecosystem.”

As far as which ideas will someday populate a cardiovascular ultrasound app marketplace, Samset said that’s still in motion. Right now, developers are fine-tuning their projects, both technically and commercially, with support from GE Healthcare — but it’s likely that many of the ideas that made their debut at the hackathon will someday become fully developed for use in hospitals, research institutions, or other healthcare environments.

An Open-Invitation Call for the Next Big Thing

Until then, excitement is high all around — both for the participants themselves and for GE Healthcare, too. The hackathon in Boston made such good progress, Samset noted, that his group plans to host another one in San Francisco March 23-24, 2019. Link to register is here!

Like the one in Boston, the West Coast hackathon boasts an open-invitation structure to develop apps for cardiovascular ultrasound products — meaning anyone and everyone can participate as they please, including individuals. But given regulatory rules, it’s most geared toward companies and university groups in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere that are equipped to transform their idea into a technical, and commercial, reality.

“Since these are medical devices, nearly every app needs to have regulatory approval, and that’s not something an individual can easily do,” Samset said. “So in that sense, it’s more interesting for startups looking to license new or existing technology, or for universities looking to conduct research.”

The Future of Healthcare Hacking

As Samset’s group looks forward to the San Francisco event, he acknowledged that the promise of future hackathons offers something not widely seen in the heart care space: Unbridled innovation. And it’s that kind of creative idea-generation that will keep the momentum going not just for the cardiovascular industry, but for healthcare as a whole.

“We’ve taken a different method with a very open innovation approach to this,” Samset said. “That is, we let companies generate their own ideas, and we provide the technical capability to put their apps on our products, as well as the commercial capability of distributing them on a marketplace.”

So will the events expand outside of cardiovascular imaging? Will other areas of care have their own “hackathon heyday” someday soon?

Most certainly, Samset said.

“Currently, these third-party app ideas are focused on the cardiovascular space, but we’re collaborating closely with other ultrasound areas — for example, general imaging — to do the same there, too,” he said. “I think it’s an initiative that will be expanded to cover GE Healthcare as a whole down the road. But for now, we’re starting with cardiovascular ultrasound and will let it spread from there.”

 

References:

1. GE Healthcare Cardiovascular Ultrasound Developer Partnership Program. GE Healthcare. http://landing1.gehealthcare.com/GBL-WB-18-12-ULT-CVS-DPP_Developer-Partnership-Program.html. Accessed Jan. 20, 2019.