TEDMED Opens with Call to Think Outside the Box to Solve Healthcare Problems

The crowd at TEDMEDTEDMED 2012 kicked off yesterday in Washington, DC, with a session addressing the theme of “embracing the unconventional.”

The four-day conference brings together experts from a variety of disciplines to share knowledge and imagine the future of healthcare. The first session featured acrobatic and musical performances and talks by a lawyer, a graphic designer, and the founder of a healthcare nonprofit.

People working in healthcare tend to connect in silos, with specialists interacting mainly with others in the same field, said TEDMED curator and emcee Jay Walker. The goal of conference, he said, was to assemble a diverse crowd to focus on innovation, imagination, and inspiration.

“People from the front lines of medicine across all fields are here,” Walker said.

The event opened with a performance by Montreal-based acrobatic dance troupe 7 Fingers that set the standard for what healthy bodies are capable of. The performers rollerbladed, skateboarded, and jumped through hoops in ways that seemed to defy gravity.

“Performing arts open our minds and imaginations to things we don’t think are possible,” Walker told the crowd.

The first speaker was Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that litigates on behalf of underprivileged defendents who have not received fair treatment in the justice system. He talked about the “power of identity,” which he said could “get people to imagine a future they can’t otherwise imagine.”

Stevenson urged the crowd not to ignore poor, underprivileged, and underrepresented members of society when working to solve problems in healthcare and other areas. Though it may be hard to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, it is every person’s obligation to do so, he said.

“Humanity requires us to respect every person’s human dignity,” Stevenson said. He left the crowd with a bit of advice given to him by the janitor at a court in which he was arguing: “Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.”

Graphic designer Teresa Monachino presented what she called a “sicktionary,” an A-to-Z list of words that are unclear, inaccurate, or don’t necessarily mean what most people think they do. Among the words she called out was “consumer,” which she said has recently become a replacement for “patient.”

“Do patients become more powerful by becoming consumers?” she asked. “One word can change the picture entirely.”

Next, musical director Jill Sobule shared a song about what it would have been like if different historical figures, from Edgar Allen Poe to the Old Testament God, had taken modern drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin. She claimed to have finished writing the song only 10 seconds before going onstage.

Last up was Rebecca Onie, cofounder of the nonprofit Health Leads, an organization that harnesses college students to connect patients with the basic resources required to get and stay healthy. She told of how after working in college with a Boston law firm that represented low-income families in housing disputes, she became frustrated with the fact that interventions were coming too late to help families before difficult situations became crises.

“I was frustrated because we were intervening too far downstream,” she said.

In an attempt to reach those in need earlier, Onie partnered with Barry Zuckerman, MD, at what was then called Boston City Hospital, to ask doctors what they would give patients if they had unlimited resources. The answer they heard time and again was that the underlying cause of many patients’ health problems was the fact that they didn’t have access to basic necessities such as food and shelter.

To solve that and other problems, Health Leads works within existing elements of the healthcare system. Take, for example, the clinic waiting room, once a place where patients did nothing more than wait to see a provider.

“If airports can become shopping malls and McDonald’s can become playgrounds, surely we can reinvent the clinic waiting room,” Onie said. “The waiting room became a place where Health Leads turned the heat back on.”

Health Leads now places college volunteers in clinic waiting rooms to help connect patients with the community resources they need to stay healthy.

Another healthcare institution Health Leads has repurposed is the electronic medical record (EMR), which Onie said the organization has changed from a “static repository” of data to a “health-promotion tool.” When a patient’s weight indicates an elevated body mass index that puts them at risk for obesity, the EMR automatically triggers a response through Health Leads to connect the patient with resources such as healthier food and exercise programs.

“If we know what it takes to a have a healthcare system rather than a sick-care system, why don’t we do it?” Onie asked.

TEDMED sessions will continue through Friday, April 13. The live event is held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and TEDMEDLive simulcasts are being shown at institutions across the country.

MD+DI will be reporting from TEDMED simulcast locations all week.

Jamie Hartford is the associate editor of MD+DI and MED. Follow her on Twitter at @readMED.