Sacred Heart University graduate student excels at healthcare hackathon

Student’s group wins second place with app that addresses social injustice in health care

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FAIRFIELD, CT – Hacking can have a good cause. Sacred Heart University graduate student Melanie Reyes recently used her work experience and knowledge to address social injustices in health care during the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) weekend-long virtual hackathon event.

To Reyes’ surprise and delight, her team won second place in its category.

“Hacking Racism in Healthcare,” an inaugural event for MIT, brought students and professionals from all over the world together to “dismantle racial injustice in health-care delivery and address the social determinants of health,” according to the event’s website. Participants formed groups, discussed real-world health problems, developed a solution and then presented their scenario to a panel of judges over the course of three days.

Reyes, 27, is enrolled in SHU’s public health master’s program (MPH). The Easton native and Fairfield resident started her first year of the program this fall after working as a fitness and nutrition coach for several years in New York City.

Clinicial assistant professor Sofia Pendley told students in her social determinants of health class about MIT’s hackathon. Reyes thought the event could be a challenging and rewarding opportunity, so she signed up.

“The MIT Hackathon presented a great opportunity for students in the MPH program to work on developing creative solutions to health-equity problems,” Pendley said. “Students in the MPH program take coursework on health-equity issues throughout their graduate study, and the MIT hackathon presented a unique chance for them to put classroom learning into practice.”

Reyes joined the virtual event on a Friday evening with 900 people from 40 countries. After hearing from various presenters and guest speakers, participants divided into seven categories: public health, population health, individualized health, research bias, education, social injustice and intersectionality. Reyes was in the individualized health group.

“The group was really diverse,” Reyes said. She conversed with IT professionals, high school students, health-care workers, business specialists, artists and more. “It was really great to collaborate with all these people,” she said.

On Saturday, the group brainstormed about a health problem they were going to cover and its solution. Ideas were shared, but ultimately, Reyes’ group chose her suggestion.

As a personal trainer in New York City, Reyes visited her clients at their homes. This led to many conversations with doormen, maintenance staff, front desk workers and others. There was one man Reyes chatted with often who frequently asked her about his ankle injury. Reyes provided advice, but asked him if he had ever seen a doctor for his persistent problem. He said, “No.”

“I got the impression that maybe he was an undocumented immigrant,” Reyes said. She thought he might have been fearful to see a doctor, or didn’t have health insurance.

“This was the problem I wanted to address,” Reyes said. “How could we help undocumented immigrants get access to health care?”

Once her pitch was accepted, her group brainstormed solutions. Over the course of several hours, the team came up with an idea: A free smart phone application that undocumented immigrants could use anonymously. The app would connect patients with medical students for care. The students would come from a wide variety of specialties – from physical therapy to general medicine to orthopedics.

Reyes said immigrants are often uncomfortable disclosing their personal information, but this app would protect their identity and provide access to care. Additionally, the app allows students to put their knowledge to good use and get their clinical hours in, she said.

Presentations took place on Sunday, the last day of the hackathon. Reyes said she was nervous; she rehearsed and perfected her notes. The group presented for three minutes and answered judges’ questions for two minutes.

At the end of that day, she learned her team came in second for individualized health.

“It was a really pleasant experience, and it connected me with so many mentors and people I wouldn’t normally connect with,” Reyes said, referring to professionals who opened her eyes to other topics of health care, such as funding and liability.

“I am really proud of Melanie’s accomplishments,” Pendley said. “Her team’s success really shows the value of interprofessional collaboration and innovation. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for their product.”

Reyes said she was glad she participated, even though she initially worried that she got in over her head. On Friday, she expressed her anxiety to her mother, who told her, “You never know what will happen when you challenge yourself.”

“I would recommend this experience to everyone,” Reyes said. “I think it’s something everyone should do. It ended up being a very creative and challenging, but rewarding experience.”

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