The first Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon kicked off Thursday evening at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset with featured national health experts Dr. Doug Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute, and Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Part of what you will be doing in the next few days is developing innovative solutions,” Lowy said at the event. “More and more, research is a team sport – different people coming together to solve a common problem with a common purpose that they can do more together than they could individually.”

“Stigma doesn’t work. Ignorance doesn’t work. We can come up with creative solutions for prevention and help treat addiction,” Volkow added. “We have that capacity as human beings for creativity, and we do much better when we’re inspired. I’ve been inspired from the stories and commitment I’ve heard throughout the day in Eastern Kentucky.”

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will facilitate the hack-a-thon, which is convening 160 people with different backgrounds and expertise to form teams, collaborate within a limited timeframe, and focus on a specific problem to create innovative, disruptive ideas and solutions.

The opening reception included an official IGNITE event, where eight presenters delivered high-powered 5-minute presentations to enlighten and inspire participants.

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Among the IGNITE presenters was Operation UNITE Deputy Director Tom Vicini, who discussed using physical activity as a drug prevention tool.

“Kentucky youth are at-risk for drug use for reasons such as peer pressure, low self-esteem, ignorance or inaccurate information, and a feeling of invincibility,” Vicini said, noting the average age of first-time drug use in southern and eastern Kentucky is age 11.

“UNITE seeks to empower youth to remain substance-free and to become leaders,” Vicini said. “This is achieved by developing drug prevention, intervention and leadership programs that are both fun and encourage physical activity.”

By bringing together diverse minds alike in their interest for solving healthcare’s biggest challenges, problems can be diagnosed from multiple perspectives.

MIT’s Hacking Medicine program has held more than 40 events worldwide, helping to develop solutions to some of the toughest problems in medicine. Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) is bringing the program to Kentucky, which is the first time MIT has held a hack-a-thon in Appalachia.

“Appalachian Kentucky faces many challenges, but bringing communities together to create innovative solutions is the key,” said Jared Arnett, executive director of SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region).

“SOAR is seeking the brightest minds – from health to business and entrepreneurs, techies, innovators and engineers, to social workers, patients and students. Participants will implement this challenge-solving technique, which is used by the technology industry and companies like Google.”

In addition to creating an opportunity for these 160 participants to develop action-based solutions that bridge the gap among health, entrepreneurship and economic development, they also will bring this type of problem-solving back to their communities and organizations.

“We are here to change our trajectory, with the hope of saving lives in southern and eastern Kentucky through powerful efforts like this hack-a-thon,” said Congressman Hal Rogers (KY-5th), co-founder and co-chair of SOAR. “With the addition of KentuckyWired bringing high speed, high capacity broadband to every county, the only limit to improving healthcare technology will be our imagination.”

Hack-a-thon participants also include students from Pikeville, Paintsville and Whitesburg, who will take part in the event virtually – working with their teachers, Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative staff, and local subject matter experts.

“Problems related to the poor overall health in Appalachia, especially in the SOAR focus areas of obesity, diabetes and substance abuse, are impacting our communities in a major way,” said Dr. William Hacker, chair of the SOAR Community Health and Wellness Advisory Council. “We want to improve health metrics, reduce the incidence of chronic disease and begin to turn the tide on the consequences of the massive substance abuse epidemic we are in the middle of right now.”

The event will end on Saturday afternoon, as teams present solutions in two tracks – substance abuse and obesity/diabetes – to a panel of judges. Prizes include up to $1,500 in cash, recognition, and the potential to work with business incubators and accelerators.

SOAR’s sponsors for the hack-a-thon are Community Trust Bank, Passport Health Plan, Lindsey Wilson College, Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital, Wellcare, Pikeville Medical Center, the University Of Pikeville College Of Osteopathic Medicine/A-Optic, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and Ugly Mugz Coffee.