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Hacking Healthcare

There are two definitions of the word “Hacker”. One is an original and authentic term that the geekdom uses with respect. This is a cherished label in the technical community, which might read something like:

“A person adept at solving technical problems in clever and delightful ways”

While the one portrayed by popular culture is what real hackers call “crackers”

“Someone who breaks into other people computers and causes havok on the Internet”

People who aspire to be hackers, like me, resent it when other people use the term in a demeaning and co-opted manner.  Or at least, that is what I used to think. For years, I have had a growing unease about the “split” between these two definitions. The original Hackers at the MIT AI lab did spend time breaking into computer resources… it is not an accident that the word has come to mean two things.. It is from observing e-patients, who I consider to be the hackers of the healthcare world, that I have come to understand a higher level definition that encompasses both of these terms.

Hacking is the act of using clever and delightful technical workarounds to reject the morality embedded default settings embedded in a given system.

This puts “Hacking” more on the footing with “Protesting”. This is why crackers give real Hackers a bad name. While crackers might technically be engaged in Hacking, they are doing so in a base and ethically bankrupt manner. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly deserves the moniker of “protester” and this is not made any less noble because Westboro Baptist Church members are labeled protesters too.

Like protesting, Hacking is all about taking a certain set of ethical issues that are important to you, and then performing an act whose central purpose is to restore ethical balance. People with screwed up ethical compasses will give good protesters and good Hackers a bad name.
I like this broader definition because it really shows that Hacking is not at all limited to technology. It relates to “systems”, as long as the “system” is complex enough to encode moral notions. This means that protesting is really just a special kind of Hacking, in fact we might rename it “public opinion hacking”.

Consider Richard Stallman. Stallman realized when he couldn’t get access to printer control software because of a proprietary license, that the license itself was encoding something he had an ethical problem with. Rather than accept that embedded morality, he created a workaround solution (copyleft licenses) that created an alternative with an embed morality that he could live with. The system that Stallman was hacking was copyright and licensing and the modern Open Source movement is the result of this hack.

The notion that technology and other complex systems can have moral notions embedded is neither new, nor mine and I recommend Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace for a full discussion.

I came to this conclusion as we renamed our “meaningful use” book to “Hacking Healthcare“. David Uhlman (my coauthor) and Andy Oram (my editor) seriously considered “Hacking Healthcare Software”, as an alternative title. But in our discussions it became apparent to us that David and I were really hoping to teach people how to use software to change the Healthcare system itself. The software was merely the type of hack that we were proposing, rather than the system being fixed with the hack.

Any efforts to hack healthcare should be embraced because the default settings on the Healthcare system really suck.

We have too many medical errors. We have overtreatment, undertreatment, fraud and disconnected care. Worse, until very recently, we had incentives that were virtually guaranteed to make these problems worse. These problems are merely symptoms of the wrong set of morals being encoded into the healthcare system.

Which leads me to introduce Karen Herzog to you. Karen makes my efforts to hack healthcare look somewhat childish. Like other, more famous e-patients like e-patient Dave and Regina Holiday, Karen, along with her husband Richard Sachs refused to accept the default settings of the healthcare system when their daughter Sophia was born with a rare genetic disorder. Shortly after Sophia’s birth, Karen and Richard were informed that their daughter disease was incurable and that she was dying.

The default settings for the healthcare system in these circumstances could not have been worse. Karen and Richard were offered occupational therapy, physical therapy, grief counseling and “when she turns blue let us know..” by their doctors in a manner that was obviously code for “we cannot help you, sorry for your situationa but get out of our hair”.  Karen and Richard refused to accept this. They did go home, but rather than allow the healthcare system to “wash their hands” of Sophia they created a garden. This literal garden was the first step in creating a community of care that re-engaged their doctors, who were themselves feeling hopeless and overwhelmed a safe environment to try to make Sophia’s life better and to seek a cure. Like all of the greatest “Hacks” Karen and Richard repurposed simple solution and made it apply to a problem that was regarded as unsolvable. They created a literal space that was so welcoming that it inspired collaboration in a group of clinicians that were not used to collaborating worked beautifully. They found ways to make it obvious that Sophia’s space would not be a deathbed, but a different kind of space altogether.

Eventually Sophia died, but only after receiving care that was orders of magnitude better that what could have been accomplished if Sophia would have been hospitalized full time. Hundred of clinicians, friends and family came together to make Sophias garden into a success, in a collaboration that never could have occured inside the walls of any given healthcare institution.

This success was hard-fought. Together, Sophia, Karen and Richard experienced just about every significant problem that patients and caregivers can have. For each hurdle, Karen and Richard continually refused to accept the “default settings” that the healthcare system offered, by responding with hack after hack.

I am humbled to be speaking opposite Karen. Since Sophia died, Karen and Richard have pivoted their design group into one of the preeminent “Patient UX” shops in the country. They have leveraged their troves of poor experiences with the healthcare system, and their methods of working around them, into a series of fundamental insights about how to improve patient experiences with technology and design. They are my default recommendation for design work in the healthcare space.

I have been watching what e-patients like Karen and Richard are able to accomplish for years and I have come to realize that in many ways, they are far more deserving of the honorific of “Hacker” than the bozos who deface websites to make political points. In much the same way that the recognition that MLK Jr was a protester, makes it embarrassing that we have to label the Westboro church members with the same label.

Like the original Hackers who built the Internet and the first computers, e-patients are blazing a trail through the healthcare system. Decades from now we will look back on this class of patient and realize that they remade healthcare by simply refusing to accept the aspects of the healthcare system that typically suck. In the future, when the new norm for doctors is respect patients enough to actually let them finish sentences, we will have this generation of e-patients to thank. Much the same way that we recognize that our iPhones and Androids would not be possible without the pioneering Hackers of the *nix community.

Karen and I will be doing a “dueling keynote” at Health::Refactored, asking each other difficult questions about the state of the art in design and technology in healthcare. I hope that the audience will learn some tidbits from me about how to work with software to help fix healthcare, but I think I have made my case that Karen will be the real healthcare Hacker on the stage.

Fred Trotter is a healthcare data journalist and author. He is a technical blogger for O’Reilly Radar and is the co-author of the first Health IT O’Reilly book Hacking Healthcare. Fred Trotter is deeply involved in the e-patient movement, the quantified self movement, the health 2.0 community. In all of those environments, Trotter has focused on building tools that help empower patients to improve their own health. You can follow him at his personal website, where this post first appeared.

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Very informative and interesting. Thank you for sharing this. Keep up the good work!

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This is a beautiful essay, thanks for sharing this for those of us who could not make the live conversation!

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Looking forward to this, Fred.