NHS Hackday: Cardiff 2018

teampic_CalmoHi, my name is Laura Tan and I’m a 5th year student at Imperial College.  I had the best weekend at the 19th NHS Hack Day in Cardiff 2018! I went along to the Hack Day on the recommendation of Caroline and had a brilliant time hacking, networking and presenting.

Read below for a summary of the weekend – from an early morning coffee-fuelled start on the Saturday all the way to our final presentation and my team winning the converted NHS Hack Day T-Shirts!

The tagline of the NHS Hack Days is ‘Geeks who Love the NHS’.  These events bring together clinicians, developers, patients and everyone in between to put their minds together and work to develop solutions to real-life issues facing the NHS.  The aim of the weekend was to meet like-minded individuals, form teams made up of a variety of skill-sets, hack away at the problem all weekend and come up with a final solution/product/app/concept to present at the end!

The day began bright and early on the Saturday with pitches from some of the attendees.  There was huge variety with people from many varied backgrounds.  Some healthcare professionals pitched from a more clinical point of view looking for people to help build a solution, some from a more engineering/computational background looking for some clinical input.  In addition, some patients pitched more personal problems relating to their situation that they sought a solution for.

Some examples include: upgrading the paper ‘patient passport’ carried by patients with learning disabilities into a smart-phone/webpage based system; a pdf-to-text based converter to allow easy sorting and searching of scanned patient documents; a reshape of the NHS supply chain for basic hospital items (where a simple jug costs >£50 through NHS supply but less than a tenner at Ikea); a lymphoedema app allowing patients to track their disease progression; and many more ideas covering analytics, to information sharing to improved training approaches.

Two pitches particularly stood out to me. One from Dr Keith Grimes, a GP also known as ‘the VRDoctor’, who had been experimenting with VR as a distraction tool for patients in his GP surgery undergoing painful minor procedures.  He had found this worked really well with some of his patients and wanted to expand on the idea.  He wanted to create a VR environment developed specifically for use in this setting, rather than just standard app shop games.  The other input came from James Dornan, a developer, who wanted to use VR to distract patients who hated having their blood taken.

Following the pitches, we headed back for more coffee and teams began to develop as attendees discussed the pitches.  I was really interested in the VR approach to procedural distraction (and excited by all the tech!).  I teamed up with Dr Grimes, James and some other software engineers, an audio engineer, another medical student and a paediatric Occupational Therapist turned coder.  Together we formed Team Calmo and set to work brainstorming and discussing ideas.

Our aim was to make simple minor procedures, such as blood taking, less stressful and scary for patients who suffered from needle-phobia.  We looked to develop a novel VR environment able to calm and distract patients during venepunture, that was both affordable and easy to integrate into a clinical setting.

It was great to have so many views and people with different experiences and backgrounds to work on a shared issue.  We started by identifying what our core aim was – as we were all aware of the time pressure of the weekend.  We then identified all our different skills and experiences (who has taken blood, who has had blood taken, different VR experiences we have already tried) and began to allocate out tasks.

The clinical side of the team began researching on what was already available and explored the literature on procedural distraction.  We wanted to know what had been tried before, what was already out there and how we could create something novel and useful for this space. We found some literature on gaming VR for distracting patients (particularly for burns victims during dressing changes) and a lot of content on breathing exercises but none that combined the two.  Based on this we decided to use the breathing technique of Box Breathing (breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, out for four and hold for four) and integrate this into a VR environment.  We came up with the idea of an orb floating in space for the patient to focus on, that expanded and diminished to guide breathing.  The idea was that it would be both immersive, to distract the patient from the procedure, and relaxing, by steadying their breathing.

We then set to work hacking for the rest of the day (and some of the night for some!).

There was a great excited vibe across the whole weekend.  Everyone was keen to collaborate and work on their own projects and help out others. The whole weekend was very sociable and a fantastic chance to meet some really interesting people.  There was even a big night out on the Saturday to celebrate what everyone had achieved.

It was really interesting to see attendees from software/computing backgrounds and healthcare backgrounds sharing ideas and discussing concepts.  There were so many people doing such interesting things in different fields and it was fantastic to meet them and share what people were working on.  Broadly, the computing side could create functioning software and make the ideas a reality, with the clinical side able to guide the project so that it would be easily implemented in every-day practice.  However, with all sorts of people present with mixed skill sets and interesting viewpoints, everyone contributed to the final project and we were really pleased with what we achieved over the weekend.

teamcalmoBy Sunday morning we had a working demo! And it was great! We had a totally immersive star-studded sky with Adam’s calming soundtrack adding to the effect.  The orb pulsated and expanded along with the breath sounds and created an incredibly relaxing experience.

Following this, myself and Dr Grimes then worked hard on the presentation to exhibit Calmo VR and show its usability and its benefit.  The presentations were great with all the groups having something to show for the weekend and some really useful solutions developed to some of the problems that had been highlighted the day before.  Everyone presented for 3 minutes, followed by questions which prompted further discussion around the topic.

You can see all the pitches here (You can see us at 01:11:40!)


Some of my personal favourites were a lymphedema app for patients to store photos of their swellings day-by-day to aid management.  It used a transparent template so patients could take photos of their limbs in the same position each day and monitor their condition over time.  This would also be so useful to show healthcare professionals and allow them to build up a better picture of the patient’s personal experience with their condition.  Another was a pdf to text software that could be used when patient letters are scanned in.  Once the scanned text was converted to something a computer would read, this would open up so many options for the data, particularly in conjunction with computerised patient records such as Cerner.  There was also ‘My Health Passport’, a digitised version of the paper ‘passport’ often carried by patients with learning disabilities.

Following this, there was an audience vote as well as a vote from the panel of experts.

I’m pleased to say that both Calmo VR and My Health Passport came top!


I had a fantastic time at the NHS Hack Day 19 in Cardiff.  I met some really interesting people from so many diverse backgrounds and really enjoyed sharing ideas and working together.  I learnt a lot (and got very excited!) about the potential future applications of tech within the NHS and it’s definitely driven me to continue developing my coding skills and exploring this field.

Plus: watch out for Calmo VR! Coming soon to an app store near you!

You can try the tech out now on our github here: https://github.com/nhsd-calmo/calmo

Laura Tan | Imperial College London| Ljt13@ic.ac.uk


Categories: Hackathon, Healthcare

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