TEDMED highlights best of health, technology innovation

by Jane Sarasohn-Kahn

"This is a conference about a business missing in the USA. It is the business focused upon the collection of media and technologies that enable individuals to seek and obtain a healthier life through the understanding of information."
-Richard Saul Wurman, TEDMed 2003

A diverse group of artists, writers, academics and inventors made their way to Philadelphia last weekend to converse and converge at the nexus of health, information, technology and genomics. Like the event's founder, Richard Saul Wurman, this third annual meeting of TEDMED was a confluence of hard and soft technology, right and left brain integration, and an entirely different (and refreshing!) jolt for the health industry.

TED was the brainchild of Wurman, whose resume (check out his Web site) in itself would take up a couple of iHealthBeat columns. The first TED unveiled the Sony CD and Macintosh computer in 1984. Since then, the annual conference has brought together the broadest conceivable range of visionaries in their respective fields of Technology (T), Entertainment (E) and Design (D) to consider the possibilities of convergence.

In 1995, Wurman assembled the first TEDMED conference to focus on the convergence of T-E-D with health. The meeting featured a broad array of speakers like Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, Harvard University scientist Stephen Jay Gould, Horace Deets of the AARP, and Laurie Garrett, who wrote the prescient book, "The Coming Plague."

This year marked TEDMED's third meeting, with the conference's usual diverse array of presenters: Dean Kamen, serial inventor; Naomi Judd, entertainer and self-care guress; Caroline Kovac of IBM Life Sciences; Hamilton Jordan, cancer survivor and political survivor; Steve Case, AOL founder; Arthur Caplan, bioethicist; and, numerous medical device innovators, artists, writers, doctors and academics.

Where health, technology and entertainment collide

A few examples of TEDMED3 presentations will give you a taste of what Wurman's special brand of convergence means in health: XVIVO's interactive videogame for kids with cancer; Ambient Devices' Healthwatch, which helps people manage medications; VivoMetrics' Lifeshirt, a sensor-laden vest that can monitor more than 30 cardiopulmonary signals; Richard Rockefeller of the Health Commons Institute talking about leveraging technology so that caregivers can spend more time on wellness and healing; and, Astro Teller of BodyMedia, whose armband device will be soon be marketed by Roche Diagnostics for weight management. Marry these health applications with entrepreneurial discussions by the founder of Autozone; Lygeia Ricciardi, who developed Mamamedia.com's corporate vision and online content for parents; and, Naomi Judd advocating for integrative medicine - and you have a feeling for the dynamism and scope of TEDMED3.

What brought presenters, sponsors and attendees together at TEDMED3 is their collective gut belief that, with the explosion of information and medical technology, people should be able to understand, embrace and better manage their health and health care. Wurman's mission in life has been to make the seemingly incomprehensible, understandable. As he told Forbes magazine in January 2003, "My only business is making what interests me understandable. Other people sell their expertise. I sell my lack of expertise. I take information from the undecipherable to the decipherable category."

Clearly, health care is very interesting to Wurman these days. TEDMED3 focused on eight themes: health economics, information, imaging, diagnostics and visualization, genomics/nanotechnology/pharmaceuticals, architecture and design, mental health, and music and entertainment. It's because the conference went beyond the issues of financing and IT, and incorporated topics such as design, mental health, and entertainment, that gives me hope that there are other smart people on the planet who get how health care works at the personal level. Moreover, they appreciate that there can be business models that can both work and be helpful to personal and public health.

Aging population, personal experiences drive innovation

What's interesting to note is that so many people who present and attend TEDMED talk about their personal experiences with the health care system...and how this leads them to looking for solutions. This is certainly one of the drivers that led Jim Clarke, founder of Healtheon, to conceive of that now-defunct company. Leaders such as Larry Ellison of Oracle also have spoken in public about their personal interactions with the health system.

At TEDMED3, Steve Case, who conceived of the profitable business model known as AOL, spoke of his late brother's battle with brain cancer in concert with the aging of baby boomers who are also in senior management positions at technology companies. Case sees the research and development agendas at the largest technology companies heavily focusing on health care, perhaps out of personal passion, and certainly cognizant that health represents the largest single vertical market in the American economy. The aging baby boomers will only grow the health economy, and spur applications that blend health, technology and care.

The major message coming out of TEDMED3 was simple. As one of the organizers said, "What computer science was to the last quarter of the 20th century, medical science and digital design will be to the first quarter of the new century." While we need to temper this with the realities of health financing, it's energizing - and crucial to the future of health care in aging America - to get back to the idealism and possibility that Wurman's vision enables.

About the author:

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist who advises organizations at the nexus of health care and technology. After 20 years of consulting work in the health care industry, Jane continues to be passionate about the role that technology can play in improving quality and reducing costs. She leads Think-Health, a health consultancy, and is a long-time affiliate of Institute for the Future. Jane can be contacted at jane@think-health.net.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent the views of the California HealthCare Foundation or the Advisory Board Company.

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