April 17, 2012: From the desk of SHADAC Director Lynn Blewett
Last week I had the privilege of attending TEDMED, the annual “grand gathering” of people who are imagining the future of health and medicine. Thank you to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for inviting me to TEDMED as their guest--I loved it! I felt like I was crashing a big private party of smart and up-and-coming business leaders and innovators. Out of the 1500+ people in attendance, I knew about ten—I kept wondering, who are the rest of these people, and what are they up to? Luckily, the vibe of the conference was positive, with lots of energy and an expectation that attendees would engage with one another—the true art of casual conversation.
I was a bit surprised at what made the top of the list of the 20 “Great Challenges of Health and Medicine,”—Inventing Wellness Programs that Work. Really?! NOT the persistent and growing disparities in health? NOT the 50 million who lack any kind of health insurance coverage? NOT the 16 million children living in poverty in the United States? Definitely not my usual crowd of health policy analysts and health services researchers. However, I tried to keep an open mind, recognizing that wellness initiatives are critical to reducing obesity and improving health.
Part Marketing, Part Health Promotion
Was this a “be-healthy” conference? In part. The beautiful big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and his equally beautiful 6’3” volleyball player/model wife talked about making health “sexy and fun!” And my highlight: Billy Jean King talking with Katie Couric about the benefits to girls of Title IX and the lack of funding for neighborhood rec centers and public school gym classes. A young man asked me later what Title IX was. Shocked, I explained that when I went to high school I played on the tennis team in the fall, but the only option open to me for a winter sport was Badminton. Today girls can play ice hockey, volleyball, basketball, etc.—just like the boys!
The conference featured rock stars of healthy lifestyles, rock stars of medicine, and personal survivor stories…and marketing. The vegan multi-marathoner (with a book coming out); the professional violinist/neuroscientist (with a documentary due soon); the mother of an autistic child who learned to communicate with a keyboard and turned out to have a genius IQ (with a book of poetry available for purchase); along with the man who survived a mugging and knife attack through the work of a team of highly-trained and amazing surgeons. There were ALS doctors who want to put stem cells into the spinal cord but aren’t allowed to do human trials because of government regulations. Another presentation featured a brain implant that may lead to quadriplegics being able to walk with electro-skeleton arms and legs. Clearly a LOT of stuff was covered in a short amount of time!
TEDMED knows how to plan an event! The presentations were at the beautiful Kennedy Center Opera House. The bountiful lunches were in the Terrace restaurant area. Plus dinners with drinks and music —at the National Portrait Gallery, in the Library of Congress, and in the National Building Museum—all easily accessible by buses and trolleys complete with TEDMED bench cushions.
On the Role of Government
An interesting aspect of TEDMED was the general lens through which the role of government was presented. Mostly the message was that government is a barrier to innovation and advancement. And this was despite TWO presentations by the irrepressible U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park, championing the release and reuse of all the publicly available data the government has. Instead of focusing on policy, the talk was about products, new ideas, marketing and promotion, with lots of networking time built into the day. When I saw my few policy friends, we did talk about the Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act and the election and health reform, but otherwise the topics weren’t at the forefront.
Maybe moving TEDMED to Washington, DC, will help bridge the divide between the world of innovation and scientific advancement and the world of societal problems like uninsurance, poverty, public education, and the high cost of higher education. Bridging this gap is a challenge that requires partnership between the private and public sector—and this would make the top of my list of great challenges!