Code-a-thon champ brings Amazon Alexa expertise to Humana

As a student at University of California at Berkeley who grew up on the west coast, Zach Zeleznick had never heard of Humana.

But over the past 10 weeks, working with Humana Health Innovation and the Humana Digital Experience Center (DEC), he’s been instrumental in building an Amazon Echo (sometimes known as “Alexa” for the name of the personality that “talks” to you) prototype with the potential to help seniors better manage their medications.

The Innovation team met Zach when he and some friends entered – and won – a code-a-thon competition co-sponsored by Humana at last year’s Health 2.0 conference.

“Our innovation team pursues health solutions with relentless attention on the experience for our members — their barriers and motivations, fears and joys,” says Busy Burr, head of Humana Health Ventures. “But we can’t always do it alone. That’s why we seek out technology innovators – like we did at Health 2.0 – to bring together the disciplines and capabilities needed to quickly create products and services that fit into people’s lives and make a meaningful difference.”

Zach’s team created a voice-based solution that enabled seniors to ask questions related to their medications such as: “When is my next refill?” “What side-effects might I have?” or “I’m having nausea, which of my medicines might be causing this?” They also created a companion mobile app to display medication info and history.

Zach recalls the code-a-thon was pretty typical – a 24-hour event with teams downing Red Bull at 3 a.m., barely sleeping, and making frantic changes before submitting their entries. But it was different in at least one regard.

“Humana had invited targeted users – in this case, seniors – to provide input and share their personal experiences,” said Zach. “Usually you just envision user needs and develop based on that. But here, we could talk about their pain points. We could see and address their needs as we built solutions. And they could validate our hypotheses in real time.”

Zach says it was the way his team leveraged the seniors’ input that helped their team standout with the judges. And that led to further conversations with Humana, where teams had already begun exploring voice interface technology as found in Amazon’s Echo product.

The team quickly offered Zach, who was just about to graduate from UC Berkeley with both biomedical engineering and computer science degrees, a short-term partnership to take the Echo concept further.

“Being able to leverage skill sets and capabilities from the outside in a very quick and agile way will be key to solving many of the complex healthcare challenges we face,” said Chris Kay, Chief Innovation Officer. “Whether that’s with start-ups, entrepreneurs or students like Zach.”

Health + Tech

Zach credits the careers of both his father and grandfather for leading him to pursue the degree combination he did. His grandfather was a biochemist who founded a biopharmaceutical company. His dad – a software writer for the defense industry.

“I wanted to be able to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.,” says Zach. “I originally thought about medicine – but the number of people you can reach day-by-day is in the order of tens. With health tech, I could potentially help millions of people.”

“I added computer science later because beyond things like stents and pacemakers, software has the potential to create a lot of value in the healthcare space.”

Now working as a software engineer at Snapchat, Zach reflected back on his experience at Humana.

“As a developer – a lot can go wrong when you work with a company, but it was easy for me to work with Humana. I was able to get up and running very quickly. They connected me with the right people when I needed additional data or info – especially handling integration and communications needs for the solution. The project timeline went according to schedule without major hiccups – that’s a rare moment.”

Adding: “It tells you these kinds of initiatives – projects that help empower people’s health – are a big priority at Humana. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of really smart and passionate people who are focused on solving some pretty big healthcare problems. It’s eye-opening because it’s something you might associate with a startup instead of a healthcare insurer.”

What’s next for the Amazon application?

The aim of the 10-week project was to take the hackathon prototype to something that’s ready to pilot. The Innovation team, in partnership with other areas of the organization, will continue to develop and refine the skill (that the team’s calling “MedBox”) along with others that support members’ daily care.

“We hope to learn whether a voice interface can be more user-friendly to seniors versus a phone application that involves sight or touch,” says Zach. “It’s a new mode of interacting with medications.”

Zach Zeleznick and fellow hacker Ryan Ma at the Health 2.0 code-a-thon sponsored by Humana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You might also like