Eastern Kentucky Hack-A-Thon Points to Community Innovation as Path to Health


By Morgan N. Kirk



Until recently, when I heard the word “hacking,” I imagined something sinister: anonymous strangers trying to break into my financial or social media accounts.

But after participating in the Appalachian Health Hack-A-Thon, brought to Somerset last month by SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I now associate the term with something completely different: a community of caring people working together to hack away at our shared challenges.

More than 160 people, from doctors and healthcare company executives, to high school students and community advocates, came together to brainstorm and code our way to solutions to some of the biggest health issues facing our nation and our own hometowns: obesity, diabetes and substance abuse.

* One group of high school students from Pikeville developed an app that would challenge users to get five minutes of exercise five times a day.

* A Pike County group developed a detailed mail-in needle exchange program, called Holler Exchange, which could supplement an already existing life-saving needle exchange program in Pike County. This addresses the challenge of transportation access that many in the area face.

* My group – which included a computer engineer, a professor, an international student and healthcare representatives – developed a plan to add a preventative screening checklist on the back of Medicaid cards, as well as an app that would include incentives and scheduling options. It was a fantastic collaboration.

None of these solutions will single-handedly change health outcomes for the entire region, but they illustrate how bringing people together for even just a short 24-hour period can drive innovative thinking and planning.

The health challenges of Eastern Kentucky are parallel to the health challenges facing our entire nation. All of these challenges are a result of a combination of factors: genetics, in many cases, but also cultural habits of eating and exercise, as well as technological trends that shape how we spend our time.

As a WellCare community advocate, I know that finding innovative ways to address health at the community level can be as important as finding new medicines or treatment plans, so participating in the Hack-A-Thon was an important step in helping to create a healthier community. A beautiful African proverb I use often is “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We came away from the Hack-A-Thon with more than just a handful of good ideas, but with a broader, intergenerational team of people committed to the cause of a healthier Kentucky.

My Hack-A-Thon team will continue to challenge each other, and I encourage all Kentuckians to think about ways that they can help build a healthier community. Whether that means developing a new app, starting a lunch walking club at work, or volunteering at a local organization tackling addiction issues, there’s a way for everyone to get involved and make a difference!

Morgan N. Kirk is community advocate of advocacy and community-based programs with WellCare Health Plans, Inc.

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By Morgan N. Kirk

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