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Health care network offers $3M for illness-prediction algorithm

Lucas Mearian | March 30, 2011
Heritage Provider Network hopes work can save up to $40B in medical costs a year and make more dollars available for medical research

As a history buff, Richard Merkin says he sees merit in innovation contests, noting that past ones have led to the creation of canned food, saved Napoleon's troops from malnutrition and spurred Charles Lindbergh to make his trans-Atlantic flight.

So Merkin, founder and CEO of the Heritage Provider Network (HPN), launched the Heritage Health Prize contest, which will award $3 million to a developer who creates a computer program that can accurately predict and prevent unnecessary hospitalizations.

"I've been seeing patients for over 30 years. Over that time there has been well-meaning attempts but only glacial change in health care," said Merkin, a medical doctor. "I just thought if we could put a man on the moon and we could invent the Internet, we could get some innovative and creative young people to use their skills for health care and help society."

In the U.S. alone, more than $2.2 trillion is spent annually on health care, yet only 1% of that amount goes toward medical research.

Merkin said $40 billion a year is spent on hospitalizations that could be avoided through preemptive medical care for chronic medical conditions. He reasoned that finding ways to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations would free up more money for reasearch that could lead to cures for more diseases, he said.

"If we can spend $3 million and leverage the creativity and innovation we have in this country to save $40 billion, that would be very successful," he said. "Even if we [reduce unnecessary hospitalizations] by 10%. there would be a 10-fold increase in research dollars."

The prize money certainly appears to be whetting developers' appetites.

Even though the Heritage Health Prize contest won't officially open until April 4 when the rules and regulations are announced, more than 3,700 pre-registrants from as far away as Poland have so far asked to participate, according to HPN.

The competition will run for two years and is expected to attract up to 100,000 data scientists worldwide, HPN stated in a news release. At $3 million, the Heritage Health Prize is now the largest predictive modeling prize in the world, larger than the Nobel Prize for Medicine and the Bill and Melinda Gates Prize for Health.

Kaggle, a crowdsourcing startup company, will be running the competition. The 11-month-old company has been focused on crowdsourcing predictive modeling and has to date launched 16 data prediction competitions, proving that the best answers can come from surprising places, such as a 25-year-old computer science student from Slovenia, who beat mathematicians from MIT to win one of Kaggle's first competitions.


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