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Teaching and Learning at #TEDMED

by Holly Spring, Director of Communications

Last week, I was fortunate enough to experience TEDMED, an event held in D.C. each year that features brilliant short talks and artistic performances that celebrate the power of unexpected connections and facilitates a conversation about how to get to a future in health care we all want.

During the event, the feeling of excitement, innovation and intellect was palpable. On the first evening of the four-day conference, hundreds of caregivers, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, students and scholars poured into “The Hive,” an outdoor tent right off the Kennedy Center that showcased TEDMED speakers from up high (literally: an image of each speaker hung from the tent’s ceiling, the work of Rhode Island School of Design [RISD]students.) The tent event was appropriately named—the buzz of what’s possible to make health care better roared from every beanbag chair, couch, booth and high-top table.

There is a certain symmetry that so much teaching and learning takes place at TEDMED since these are two of the core tenants of the athenahealth culture. Some of the highlights for me as a first-time attendee:

  • Our CEO Jonathan Bush talked about profit, people and frontiers in health care. He talked about how the profit motives of health care are broken and must change, called for innovation on the edge of health care. He reminded the audience how people like John Mackey from WholeFoods and Steve Jobs from Apple took on the status quo of what arguably was working in their respective industries: ordinary grocery stores and standard personal computing. Jonathan shared that these companies saw a frontier where they could bring more to their markets, in the form of widely available, fresh local food and an alternative to conventional PCs. He called upon disruptors, the “crazy ones,” those willing to tackle new frontiers to “come along and make health care better.” The message was well received.
  • Jay Walker, curator of TEDMED, made many appearances on the stage, continually bringing very old, rare books from his personal library to share with the audience. Among his powerful messages was that our world view is not always right, and he used various scientific views from the past to illustrate this. Walker’s point is that we just don’t know what about our current view is wrong. He encouraged everyone to be open to different interpretations as we work to discover ways to drive change and improvement in health care.
  • The President of RISD, John Maeda, spoke about the impact of design on health care and encouraged greater attention to design and leadership from those in the crowd, encouraging people to climb “the mountain” (take on new challenges). Maeda suggests each participant not be afraid to fall—there’s always the opportunity to make your way back to the summit or learn something along the way.
  • America Bracho, the Executive Director of Latino Health Access, a center for health promotion and disease prevention, was among my favorite TEDMED presenters, reminding us all that there is no “magic bullet” in health care and that each patient needs to be treated uniquely. Bracho recounted stories of diabetic women described as “non-compliant patients” in urban, low-income settings who were told to take more walks for exercise and to stop eating tortillas. What their doctor did not know was a) their neighborhoods were not safe to walk through and, b) tortillas were all their family had to eat. Bracho urged doctors to listen, engage and find community advocates (patients) who could extend treatment goals by teaching others like them in the community how to be healthier.
  • Amy Abernethy, a medical oncologist and palliative medicine physician, talked about patient information, likening information donation to blood donation and questioning why patients can’t give information like they do blood, to be pooled together to help others in need.
  • Rafael Yuste, from the $100 million-backed Brain Initiative, reminded scientists in the audience to “dream,” as discovery emerges from such passion-driven dreams. U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin shared accounts of how she works at a national level to help people “get moving” for their health.
  • Self-proclaimed icon, Richard Simmons, got a smaller group moving: The TEDMED crowd. Simmons had some of the smartest people from the medical community up on stage dancing and supporting his life-long commitment to better health through exercise, with his almost incomprehensible sense of optimism, silliness and genuine kindness.
  • The last item I learned about—and certainly not least—was The Smartphone Physical —how cool is that?! The idea that clinically focused apps and mobile device add-ons can be used to complete a patient checkup, doing things like monitoring lung capacity and confirming ear health. I was quickly able to confirm the health of my eardrum and could even see a video of the inside of my ear, insight that could easily be stored for later comparison if my doctor had the right toolset or if it was emailed to me. This technology could serve extremely valuable for parents whose kids tend to suffer from repeated ear infections, making it easier to know if a trip to the doctor is necessary.

Needless to say, TEDMED offered a lot to absorb as a learner, and great teachers to learn from. But the themes of each ‘lesson’ focused squarely on innovation, passion and partnership, whether the talks were driven by data, success stories, visions for application, or simply the act of inspiring discussion.

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