Lightning Strikes Datapalooza

It didn’t appear on the lightning strike map, but lightning did indeed strike a young medical student inside the Washington Convention Center right in front of about 1,500 amazed spectators on the first day of The Health Data Initiative Forum III: The Health Datapalooza.  Everyone is fine—though our medical student may never be the same again.

Actually, this story began long before Datapalooza, of course.  Fourth-year medical student, Craig Monsen, and his Johns Hopkins Medical School classmate, David Do, started collaborating on software applications soon after they met in first-year anatomy class.  Craig graduated from Harvard with degrees in Engineering and Computer Science and David from University of Minnesota in Bioengineering.

They’re not quite Jobs and Wozniak—neither dropped out of anything—yet—although Craig, at least, is planning to skip or delay residency.  You see, after seeing the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Aligning Forces for Quality Developer Challenge last year—they got very serious about bringing to life their vision of new applications that could help patients and consumers make great health care decisions.

The RWJF Aligning Forces Challenge offered a $100,000 first prize in a competition to find the best application that helps patients make health care decisions using publicly available measures of health care quality from the RWJF Aligning Forces initiative.  Aligning Forces is the Foundation’s nearly 10-year, centerpiece initiative to help the leaders in 16 health care markets across the nation improve the quality and cost of their health care.  The winning application would basically walk patients through a decision-making process for accessing health resources in much the same way that TurboTax® guides users through the process of submitting a tax filing.  The competing applications would use data from the Aligning Forces sites.

RWJF announced this challenge last year at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco.  The competition ultimately drew 55 first-phase applicants.  A panel of judges from the Aligning Forces communities selected five semi-finalists for the second phase.  During the second phase semi-finalists worked with leaders in Aligning Forces communities to refine the applications and then presented their final applications to a panel of judges at the Aligning Forces national meeting in New Orleans in May.

On June 5th at Datapalooza 2012, John Lumpkin, senior vice president at RWJF, announced the winners to the morning plenary audience.  First prize went to Craig and David for their Symcat application.  They designed Symcat to help cyberchondriacs—or people who search the internet about worrisome symptoms (i.e., most of us) —understand what conditions might be causing those symptoms but importantly also provide immediate, customized information for those searchers.  Symcat is both a web and mobile app and features an extensive symptom vocabulary, intelligent and dynamic question generation, machine learning to calculate probable diagnoses, and trusted medical information from MedlinePlus and AHRQ.  Symcat incorporated Aligning Forces performance metrics to help users find quality care personalized to the searcher’s medical needs.  Independent of the RWJF challenge, the Datapalooza organizers selected Symcat from hundreds of submissions to present their application on the main stage plenary session.

Craig and David started their company in August 2011—and immediately saw the Aligning Forces challenge as a great opportunity for their fledgling effort.  Craig says that his parents weren’t entirely thrilled that he was taking time out of medical school for the company—or that he was pausing with his residency plans.  After receiving the $100,000 RWJF check, though, he says he felt some “justification.”  He noted that his “parents were really proud” and that he called them almost immediately after leaving the Datapalooza stage.  His colleague, David, was not quite as fortunate—apparently his brand new wife would not allow him to interrupt their honeymoon for Datapalooza.  Craig had to manage the Datapalooza presentation and collect the winning check on behalf of the Symcat team.

We really need people like Craig and David.  For some lucky reason, leaders and risk-takers like these two young inventors always seem to come forward just when we need them.  It makes one believe that given the right opportunities, the risk-takers out there will keep dreaming big—will step into the breach and try crazy, new and amazing things—crazy new things that become our next awesome solutions.

Michael W. Painter, JD, MD is the senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

3 replies »

  1. Hi! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a group of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on. You have done a wonderful job!

  2. Gary-we do have very fun jobs, and weeks like this one are extremely rewarding. It is inspiring to work with and around so many capable people tackling some of our toughest, most complex problems. I’m glad we can pause and find joy in the successes along the way–because this work to improve health and health care is an endurance effort not a sprint. It helps to find moments to celebrate. Then we need to get right back to the main task and that’s pretty serious business. Stay on target.

  3. And I thought I had a great job. You must have fun almost every day– but then, so do I. Isn’t it a gift to have these opportunities– pushing people to think differently, think and act innovative ly, and question the value of many established traditions!!