Changing course to promote health care: ‘health hacker’ confronts COVID-19

Hubert Zajicek, MD, MBA, is one of those leading the charge for better health care in Texas.

The spring of 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have put unanticipated strains on people throughout the nation. Government has provided multiple forms of badly needed assistance, as have numerous grassroots organizations. In North Texas, one of the most important of those organizations is the Health Hacking Crisis Network

The organization is a rapid reaction force whose purpose is to address the health care crisis created by the pandemic, as well as future crises that we may confront. In the early months of its existence, the Health Hacking Crisis Network has worked diligently to produce face shields and face masks for local health care workers — and to make information about the pandemic available in six languages spoken throughout North Texas.

The origins of the Health Hacking Crisis Network start with the story of Dr. Hubert Zajicek, an Austrian-born physician who has been part of Dallas’ entrepreneurial community for more than 15 years. 

From Vienna to Dallas

Zajicek grew up in Vienna with medicine in his DNA, as both his father and grandfather were physicians. In his youth, he often drove his father to house calls, waiting in the car while his father treated his patients. After seeing his father’s close, personal interactions with those he treated, Zajicek knew he wanted to be a doctor and eventually received his medical degree from the Medical University of Vienna. Initially, he assumed he would someday take over his father’s practice — but an unexpected encounter that occurred before medical school instead brought him to Texas.

At age 18, Zajicek participated in a summer exchange program sponsored by Rotary International. Here, he met Beth McNally, another aspiring physician from Tyler, Texas. An eight-year courtship followed, and they agreed that the one who finished medical school first would join the other in their country. After they married in 1995 and Zajicek finished medical school, he kept his promise and moved to Texas to accept a postdoctorate fellowship at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

An eventual change of direction

In contrast to his cardiologist father, Zajicek had developed an interest in nephrology (kidney disease) and within a year at UTSW became a National Institutes of Health Fellow, with his research and salary funded through an NIH grant. Additionally, in 2002, he joined the UT Southwestern faculty.

By the time Zajicek received a second NIH grant, he was feeling pulled in a different direction. While his research at UT Southwestern was potentially quite important, it might have taken 20 to 30 years for that work to have any human impact. Thinking of his future, he concluded that he wanted to see things happen during his lifetime, and after exploring SMU’s MBA programs, he decided that medical entrepreneurship was his pathway forward. 

Tapping into the North Texas entrepreneurial community

Zajicek began taking night classes in 2004, and while studying, he discovered the North Texas Enterprise Center (NTEC) in Frisco. Before ceasing operations in 2017, NTEC was one of the leading business accelerators in North Texas, providing assistance to promising startup enterprises. Zajicek signed on as an NTEC scientific volunteer, and after graduating from SMU with his MBA in 2006, he joined the NTEC staff and eventually became managing director of medical technology in 2011.

During Zajicek’s tenure at NTEC, he played a pivotal role in assisting a number of medical startups. After numerous successes, he left NTEC in 2013 to become the co-founder and CEO of Health Wildcatters, an organization dedicated to addressing the need for a health care innovation hub in the rapidly growing D-FW health care industry. Health Wildcatters is what is known as a “seed accelerator” in the health care industry. Entrepreneurs with an innovative idea go through a 12-week boot camp during which they get a $30,000 seed investment and mentorship from seasoned professionals on a variety of business issues. 

Since its founding, the Health Wildcatters’ portfolio has grown to 68 startups and has raised more than $70 million, making it one of the top health care accelerators in the country.

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic

When the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Zajicek created the Health Hacking Crisis Network(HHCN). HHCN connects people who are willing to share their talents, knowledge and ideas, and/or useful equipment to settle health care issues as quickly as possible. 

“We should have enough people in this group that can tackle almost anything through their relationships,” Zajicek says.

 

An immediately apparent need was the shortage of face masks to protect frontline health care workers and first responders. Recognizing the urgency of this need, HHCN members in just a week developed a pattern for making masks using tightly woven cotton fabric.

Meanwhile, unknown to Zajicek and his partners, former City Hall employee Taylor Slovak went on Facebook seeking friends who would be interested in making cloth masks, and more than 700 quickly volunteered. As these individuals stepped forward, Heather Stevens, an HHCN member, made contact with Slovak, and the two groups quickly established a mask-making partnership, aided by a number of companies that donated bolts of cloth and elastic material for the masks. 

To date, the volunteers have produced and delivered almost 30,000 cloth masks, as well as a large number of surgical caps. Most of these have gone to hospitals, smaller medical clinics, first responders and long-term care facilities in the D-FW area. They’ve also expanded their efforts to distribute masks to many low-income families in D-FW. Additionally, they’ve sent 5,000 masks to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which has one of the highest poverty rates and lowest life expectancies in the nation.

Though most health care professionals would prefer the N95 masks that filter out 95% of airborne particles, Zajicek says, “when the choice is no mask or any mask, they’d rather have some homemade mask than none at all.”

Diverse efforts to help North Texans

Beyond making and distributing protective face masks to health care facilities, HHCN has expanded its activitiesinto other areas. Using 3D printers, the group is working with some of its other local partners to produce plastic face shields and other personal protective equipment needed by health care workers. Given the public’s need for the most accurate information on the pandemic, as well as the diversity of languages spoken in North Texas, HHCN is also producing COVID-19 infographics in six languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Tagalog and Wolof.

 

“The idea” says Zajicek, “is to have able and willing people share information and identify problems, followed by an ability to execute on solutions.” And he adds, referring to a classic TV series, “I’m not going to say we ‘MacGyver’ health care problems, but in a way that’s kind of what we do. Only these solutions are better and repeatable.”

Meanwhile, with a dynamic reserve of energy and resourcefulness, Zajicek continues to oversee the activities of Health Wildcatters at its downtown Dallas office. Among other things, he believes the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of supply chains and how quickly we can descend into an “every man for themselves” mentality during extreme emergencies. That, in turn, has generated a new appreciation for the necessity of maintaining adequate reserves of the medical equipment and supplies needed to fight a catastrophic pandemic. Contrary to what some may believe, these stockpiled reserves are not “lost money,” Zajicek insists, but a safety net essential for our survival.

Opportunities to get involved

Those who would like to join Zajicek and his associates at Health Hackers Crisis Network in aiding during the current pandemic can find volunteer information at healthhackingcrisisnetwork.com. If you are interested in volunteering to sew masks, go to dfwsewingrelief.org.