Forging Links

Jeeshan Chowdhury knew he couldn't solve health care's most complex problems by himself. It turns out he didn't have to

Alix Kemp - 07 January 2016

As a boy, Jeeshan Chowdhury wanted to be an astronaut. The third of four sons born to Bangladeshi immigrants, he and his brothers were always fascinated by science and technology. But as Chowdhury grew older, he developed an equally strong desire to help people. He thought medicine would be a more practical path.

He found a way to combine his interest in science with clinical medicine as a medical sciences student at the University of Alberta. In his second year, he participated in NASA's Astrobiology Academy in California. There, alongside physicists and engineers, he studied human space flight, including the effects of gravity on mammalian biology and the feasibility of a human mission to Mars.

The academy's interdisciplinary research approach resonated with Chowdhury, who believes in tackling problems from every possible angle. In his time at the University of Alberta - earning a bachelor of medical science in 2005 and an MD in 2014 - he made a point of working with scholars and professionals from different backgrounds and disciplines. A Rhodes Scholar who studied health information systems at Oxford, Chowdhury believed this would help him create innovative solutions.

It seems to have worked.

In 2012, Chowdhury met software engineer Dominic Savoie at a Montreal "hackathon," and together they founded Hacking Health, a non-profit organization that hosts technical meet-up events across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. These hackathons encourage collaboration between front-line clinicians and technology experts to develop web and mobile software solutions for some of health care's most complex problems. Successful projects have included a simulation that allows users to experience the same hypersensitivity that affects those with autism, an educational app for patients with cancer, and software for doctors to remotely administer care plans for physiotherapy patients. "There's only so much you can do as an individual, but creating a platform by which others can do more is incredibly satisfying," says Chowdhury. "I'm really glad to see what Hacking Health has grown into and the impact it's having [on patients and clinicians]."

Chowdhury now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area - just a few kilometres from where he attended the NASA academy - to work with Savoie and fellow University of Alberta alumnus Trevor Chan on a new medical technology startup called Listrunner. Inspired by Chowdhury's medical residency at the U of A, Listrunner is a secure mobile app that allows hospital medical staff to keep track of and exchange patient data efficiently. "One of the doctors used index cards to manage his patients, and he told us that we should do the same." But the index cards presented problems: everyone organized them differently, and it was still difficult to share information during patient hand-offs. According to the U.S.-based Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare, up to 80 per cent of medical errors happen as a result of miscommunication during hand-offs between doctors. Listrunner's goal is to eliminate those miscommunications while reducing the amount of time doctors spend on paperwork. Listrunner shows great promise. The app went through the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator in Silicon Valley and is being tested in hospitals around the globe.

Given the cost of a medical degree, Chowdhury feels fortunate to have received scholarships throughout his education. "The biggest thing about receiving scholarships is being able to pursue a longer-term vision.… You can focus on what you want to learn and on building yourself into the person you need to be to have the impact you want to have." Having the financial support to travel, build relationships with like-minded colleagues and acquire new perspectives has been key to achieving his dream of finding digital solutions to health-care challenges. "The people that I've worked with are now coming together to help me build this startup that we're creating from nothing," Chowdhury says. "That's hard to do without having that opportunity to invest in yourself and build up the skills and network."