“Next Generation” and “Rural Health” might seem like unrelated concepts, but 46 people recently devoted a Saturday to bringing them together at a Carle Illinois make-a-thon. The result? Seven innovative ideas to revolutionize the future of rural healthcare.

Next Generation Rural Health was the theme that brought together so many minds on December 7. Seven teams competed, each with an intentional mix of participants, including community members, Carle Illinois medical students, Illinois undergraduate engineering students, and Carle residents. 

Ruby Mendenhall, Carle Illinois’ assistant dean for diversity and the democratization of health care, said that bringing many perspectives to the table creates a “synergy of knowledge” that allows teams to “tackle health problems in more innovative and powerful ways.”

“In my own experience with innovation, having diverse voices allows individuals to see their blind spots or areas of less creativity,” said Mendenhall. “Diverse ways of knowing produces final products that are often stunning and push the boundaries between what we have and what we need.”

Boundary-pushing was the vibe in the room on Saturday morning as the make-a-thon began and the teams were presented with three questions: What high-impacting rural health problem do you want to tackle? What innovation do you imagine could solve this problem? And how will your solution revolutionize tomorrow’s rural healthcare? 

Teams had eight hours to develop an idea and prepare a pitch for the judges. Resources at their disposal included access to a “Rural Health Data Room” to spark ideas and guide thought processes, and three maker labs: the Product Design Lab, the CU Community Fab Lab and the Grainger IDEA Lab. All three labs are a part of the larger Health Maker Lab network at Illinois. 

When it was time to face the judges in the rapid-fire “dolphin tank,” each team gave a five-minute pitch for their idea and answered five minutes of questions. The judging team included business leaders, venture capitalists, Carle physicians, Carle Illinois faculty members, and a winner of the 2019 Health Make-a-Thon competition. 

The first-place team, which won a $5,000 prize, proposed the idea of a multi-tasking “smart bus.” Residents of remote rural areas could take the bus into cities large enough to have medical specialists, pharmacies, and grocery stores with fresh produce. While passengers are being transported, the high-tech bus would take passengers’ vitals and submit the records to physicians. The bus would also be staffed by a medical professional who could look at prescriptions and provide basic healthcare information during the route.

Members of the team that developed the second-place idea, the Shield, included Shanel Pickard, Lindsey Ades, Eunhae Yeo,
Muhammad Khan, Justin Tiao and Kelli Stretesky.

The second- and third-place teams each developed an idea to keep farmers healthy while they work in the fields. One concept was a clip-on device that measures and monitors air quality and chemical exposure, a leading health risk factor for farmers. The other was a more effective, comfortable face mask with built-in ear protection. 

Marty Burke, MD, Ph.D, associate dean for research at Carle Illinois, said the ideas presented to the dolphin tank “unleashed” the “power of the Health Maker Lab.” 

“The highly synergistic mix of teams yielded some truly exciting ideas for improving rural health,” said Burke. “We all care about being healthy, and that shared passion and purpose was on full display Saturday.

Now the Health Maker Lab team is eagerly anticipating the state-wide Health Make-a-Thon competition, which awards $10,000 in support to each of the top ten ideas. Mendenhall urges all citizen scientists to submit an idea by the January 6 deadline, stressing the importance of having a range of voices at the table, including diversity of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, geography, disciplines, ability status, and religion. 

“I encourage everyone who reads this article to push the boundaries in their own lives and submit their ideas to improve health and wellness to our spring Make-A-Thon,” Mendenhall said. “You don’t have to be a scientist to have a great idea to improve human health.”

For more information and to submit an idea by January 6, 2020, visit the Health Maker Lab website.