‘Virtual Doctor’ takes top honors in HealthHack contest

Students answer Sanford Health's call for innovative health care solutions

‘Virtual Doctor’ takes top honors in HealthHack contest

For the second year in a row, Sanford Health saw some of the nation’s most brilliant technology students in action.

Sanford HealthHack is a competition that asks students from around the United States to solve a real-world problem facing the health care industry.

Previously, the competition took place in person. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s competition was virtual.

And, it’s fitting that contest was virtual, because this year’s theme was virtual care.

How it works

Adam Emerson is the principal product manager for Sanford Technology Solutions, and plays a pivotal role in organizing the competition each year.

He says the theme of each competition is based on insights from health care professionals at Sanford Health.

“We reached out to Sanford Health patient experience, and asked, ‘what are the top 5 challenges you’re seeing from a patient’s perspective?’ We picked the one that was listed at the top.

“Virtual care is everywhere right now, because of the pandemic. But, it’s also something we always face with rural and misrepresented populations,” said Emerson.

Also: Better access to health care might come by virtual exam

So, just two weeks before the demo day, or competition, the 70 competitors were given the theme. Each team had between then and the competition to come up with a solution.

But, virtual care is such a broad term. Emerson and other organizers wanted both the problems and solutions to be specific. So, he and other organizers created made-up personas, but based them on real-world scenarios health care providers may see.

“The persona represents what you would probably find in our footprint for individuals. So, there’s moms, students, grandpas, the elderly population that lives on a farm, etc. They’re real life scenarios, and they’re made to be as realistic as possible,” said Sanford Health IT leadership fellow Jared Lower.

“So, you get a persona with their age, their demographic, the technology they’re comfortable using and what they have at home. Then, you’re turned loose to go solve a problem,” he added.

Demo day

On November 6th, the teams came back to present their work to peers, judges, and the general public. The five judges were comprised of four Sanford Health employees, and one outside representative.

Emerson says the judges graded the teams on real-world effectiveness.

“Maybe you have a computer science background. Your solution may be great technically. But, if you don’t get across the aisle to work with an expert in the field, you might miss the point,” he said.

After each team presented, a judge talked with them about what they created, why they created it, and gave them advice on how to make it more effective.

Virtual Doctor

The winning team, Virtual Doctor, was composed of MIT students Djuna von Maydell and Guillaume Leclerc. The two created an app where the doctor and patient could virtually communicate.

“The idea is that as the doctor, you log into this application, and as the patient, you log in on the other side. There’s this avatar, a 3D rending of a human body, that both the patient and doctor can interact with using their cursor.

“So, they can basically mark areas on the body that they want to discuss or talk about in more detail. They can also register and document pain levels and other data sets. So, it’s a visual tool to allow the doctor and patient to communicate better,” said von Maydell.


Von Maydell and Leclerc are on the MIT cycling team. A recent bike accident for von Maydell, and routine check-ups for Leclerc, spurred them to create Virtual Doctor.

“I went through the trouble of having pain all over my body, but had a difficult time communicating it to my doctor. So, not having the field of view on my camera, and not knowing all the terms of where things are in the body,” von Maydell said.

“I get my skin regularly checked. With most emergency rooms being closed, it’s hard to do over the phone. To have a system where you can use your phone to take photos and have the doctor track that was attractive,” Leclerc explained.

Related: Technology plays an important role during pandemic

They say they both work in research. This competition was unique, then, in that it truly gave them a look into the real-world issues facing health care.

“The persona we were given helped us to see what people care about. That’s something we’re not exposed to very often,” said Leclerc.

“A lot of the work we do feels fairly abstract,” added von Maydell. “It feels like it will be a long time until that touches patients or becomes impactful in that way. So, hearing from people who are on the front lines doing that is pretty inspiring for me.”

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Posted In COVID-19, Innovations, People & Culture, Research, Rural Health, Virtual Care