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Katarina Braune is fellow of the BIH Charité Digital Clinician Scientist Program.


Braune K, Rojas PD, Hofferbert J, Valera Sosa A, Lebedev A, Balzer F, Thun S, Lieber S, Kirchberger V, Poncette AS. Interdisciplinary Online Hackathons as an Approach to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic: Case Study. J Med Internet Res. 2021 Feb 8;23(2):e25283. doi: 10.2196/25283.


Background: The COVID-19 outbreak has affected the lives of millions of people by causing a dramatic impact on many health care systems and the global economy. This devastating pandemic has brought together communities across the globe to work on this issue in an unprecedented manner.

Objective: This case study describes the steps and methods employed in the conduction of a remote online health hackathon centered on challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It aims to deliver a clear implementation road map for other organizations to follow.

Methods: This 4-day hackathon was conducted in April 2020, based on six COVID-19-related challenges defined by frontline clinicians and researchers from various disciplines. An online survey was structured to assess: (1) individual experience satisfaction, (2) level of interprofessional skills exchange, (3) maturity of the projects realized, and (4) overall quality of the event. At the end of the event, participants were invited to take part in an online survey with 17 (+5 optional) items, including multiple-choice and open-ended questions that assessed their experience regarding the remote nature of the event and their individual project, interprofessional skills exchange, and their confidence in working on a digital health project before and after the hackathon. Mentors, who guided the participants through the event, also provided feedback to the organizers through an online survey.

Results: A total of 48 participants and 52 mentors based in 8 different countries participated and developed 14 projects. A total of 75 mentorship video sessions were held. Participants reported increased confidence in starting a digital health venture or a research project after successfully participating in the hackathon, and stated that they were likely to continue working on their projects. Of the participants who provided feedback, 60% (n=18) would not have started their project without this particular hackathon and indicated that the hackathon encouraged and enabled them to progress faster, for example, by building interdisciplinary teams, gaining new insights and feedback provided by their mentors, and creating a functional prototype.

Conclusions: This study provides insights into how online hackathons can contribute to solving the challenges and effects of a pandemic in several regions of the world. The online format fosters team diversity, increases cross-regional collaboration, and can be executed much faster and at lower costs compared to in-person events. Results on preparation, organization, and evaluation of this online hackathon are useful for other institutions and initiatives that are willing to introduce similar event formats in the fight against COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; case study; challenge; collaboration; digital health; hack; hackathon; implementation; innovation; interdisciplinarity; interoperability; mentor; mentoring; online health care; plan; public health.

©Katarina Braune, Pablo-David Rojas, Joscha Hofferbert, Alvaro Valera Sosa, Anastasiya Lebedev, Felix Balzer, Sylvia Thun, Sascha Lieber, Valerie Kirchberger, Akira-Sebastian Poncette. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 08.02.2021.


Dr. Katarina Braune (lead author) and Dr. Akira Sebastian Poncette (last author)

The researchers behind the February 2021 Paper of the Month, including lead author Dr. Katarina Braune and last author Dr. Akira Sebastian Poncette, describe the workings of online health hackathons, a new format in which representatives of different disciplines meet virtually to solve a health challenge using digital tools. The case study featured in the paper focuses – of course – on the problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the following interview, the two initiators of Hacking Health Berlin discuss the details of the project.

Ms. Braune, Mr. Poncette, what is a hackathon?

A traditional hackathon brings together people from different professional backgrounds who creatively tackle specific social, scientific or technical problems of current relevance. Whoever develops the best digital solutions receives a prize in the form of follow-up funding. In the healthcare sector things are much more interdisciplinary. Healthcare professionals, especially those from routine clinical practice, are essential for the identification of challenges relevant to everyday clinical scenarios and for the subsequent success of projects.

Your award-winning paper details how you hosted an online health hackathon on the topic of COVID-19. What exactly was it all about?

In this particular health hackathon, we didn’t define the problem beforehand but instead worked closely with our pandemic team to put out a call across all Charité medical departments and on the internet for COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, concerns and needs that urgently needed to be addressed and that could be tackled with the help of digital medicine. And lo and behold we got responses from people all over the world, from countries like Germany, Canada, Japan and the United States. A total of 48 people participated in the hackathon, with about half coming from the medical field, so most of them couldn’t program themselves but shared problems from their perspective and worked on them with other experts. The teams were supported by 50 mentors from a wide range of fields, including science, engineering, business and design, as well as storytelling and public speaking.

What issues emerged?

We received many different ideas from which we then identified five thematic issues that had the potential to be solved: First, how can we protect high-risk patients and ensure their continued care even during a lockdown, and how, for example, can people with chronic illnesses visit outpatient clinics without exposing themselves to the risk of infection? Second, how can we protect the mental and physical health of people who work in healthcare and other systemically important professions? Third, how can we track high-risk contacts securely and anonymously? Fourth, how can we improve the care of COVID-19 patients in intensive care, for example, how can we optimize the ventilation and positioning of patients, how can we redesign the ICU into a more pleasant and natural environment, and how can we prevent postoperative delirium after anesthesia? The fifth challenge focused on protecting the mental health of the general population who suddenly had to deal intensively with new issues and unfamiliar modes of behavior and cope with financial concerns and social distancing.

How did you proceed then?

The event was opened by Prof. Sylvia Thun as keynote speaker, who thanked all participants for their commitment before giving a motivational speech to the group. After individual participants “pitched” concrete ideas for solutions to the different challenges, small teams were formed in which various experts from different disciplines came together and developed digital solutions for the problem areas. It turned out that especially the online format using communication channels like Zoom and Slack led to a situation where people from different disciplines and professions from all over the world could work together. That would have been hard to realize with an onsite hackathon. And the advantage of online hackathons is of course that you save the cost of travel, catering and venue and equipment hiring.

Your award-winning paper now describes how to organize such an online health hackathon?

Yes, exactly. After this first health hackathon we conducted a study among the participants and asked them about their expectations and experiences. In addition, we put together a detailed guide on how to organize online hackathons in a short period of time for anyone interested in doing just that.

And has anyone been inspired by the idea?

There have actually been numerous COVID-19 hackathons in 2020, including ones organized by the German Federal Ministry of Health – which resulted in the coronavirus warning app – and by the EU. The hackathon format should also become a permanent fixture in the clinical innovation environment at Charité and the BIH. Back in 2017 and 2018 we held “offline” hackathons in collaboration with Charité and the BIH. The Institute for Medical Informatics is already planning a Rethinking Health Hackathon 2022 at Charité in spring of 2022.

Ms. Braune, Mr. Poncette, thank you very much for your time.