TEDMED Goes to Washington

Last year Priceline founder Jay Walker bought TEDMED –a conference that licenses  the TED style and brand but is separately owned from its famous cousin. While there was some fun controversy about the sale, Walker made two key decisions. First he moved the conference from San Diego to Washington D.C. to try to get it more central to the health policy debate, and second he initiated a set of 50 Great Challenges from which the community voted a top 20. These are things like tackling the obesity crisis, getting transparency in medical research, training next generation of leaders and more.

Much of the fun and high production value entertainment from previous years stayed, but there was a new sense of urgency in the air concerning making changes from a top down and bottom up level in the way policy works for science and technology. There was rather less information technology than in years past and more emphasis on things like training of physicians, food policy, and basic science.

Like TED there’s a strong sense of celebrity at TEDMED with entrepreneurs like Walker and buddy AOL founder Steve Case on hand, mixing with newscaster Katie Couric and volleyball pro Gabby Reece. There’s also an interesting (and we hear not cheap) sponsorship model with the exhibit hall being more about zones for discussion rather than tradeshow demos. We like Philips sleep discussion and Booz Allen Hamilton’s discussion area.

A steady drumbeat of hip speakers and healthcare A-listers delivered the expected series of science-based TED-style talks on the big-picture challenges facing medicine, from the war on cancer to obesity to food science, to cutting edge approaches to personalized medicine.

While the focus of many startups is on the search for the “new new” thing, as Michael  Lewis famously described it, innovation can also be about rethinking what we already have. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins offered a reminder, as he looked at the potential of repurposing the medicines we already have, the approach behind the much talked about translational sciences effort at NIH.

On Day 2, Author and Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre delivered an important and well-received address on the data iceberg, calling for stakeholders at biotech, pharmaceutical and academic research institutions to open access to often tightly controlled data on clinical trials for the good of the scientific community.

Reuters Health editor Ivan Oransky, the rare healthcare journalist with a medical degree, gave a talk warning about the creeping medicalization of society. In a world addicted to drug-based solutions to health problems, the consumer advocate warned, physicians need to question industry-focused attitudes about prescribing.

Technology guru and philanthropist Larry Brilliant (currently the head of eBay founder Jeff Skoll’s Global Threats Fund) and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg shared the stage for a discussion on innovation and regulation. Hamburg talked about the agency’s efforts to bring entrepreneurs into government to push for faster approval times and discussed the administration’s efforts to develop work arounds to help solve the drug shortage problem.

Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek talked about the personal realization that led to a radical lifestyle change and a dedication to a running. (An ultramarathon, if you’re wondering, is defined as any race longer the 26.5 mile traditional marathon. Ruzek is famous for having once run 167 miles in one 24 hour race, the equivalent of six and a half conventional marathons. )

Newly-appointed Obama administration CTO Todd Park talked about the successes of the administration’s effort to encourage physicians to adopt electronic health records, discussing Cincinnati’s innovative IT effort. And then came back the next day to promote the data liberacion effort he led at HHS, which will be showcased in the upcoming HealthData Palooza III in June.

The celebrity quotient maxed out on day three. Eliza’s Alexandra Drane interviewed Gabby Reece and husband surfer Laird Hamilton about how they raise their kids and how even people as beautiful as them have to schedule their sex life. Still, a tough couple to live up to! Newscaster Katie Couric and tennis great Billie Jean King, basically interviewed each other and in particular discussed Katie’s well-publicized fight to raise awareness of colon cancer following the death of her husband Jay from colon cancer.

In a new addition this year, organizers introduced an interactive “Great Challenges” program with influential attendees rating the most important facing healthcare using an interactive system over the course of the conference. High vote getters included standards like the obesity crisis, prevention, patient safety and personalized medicine. (For a full list, click here.)  The audience proposed a 51st – sleep deprivation – a not much talked-about issue, which it was pointed out has very real consequences as a contributor to health problems ranging from heart disease to high blood pressure. Left unmentioned, perhaps understandably, given the gadget-friendly environment – was distracted driving, a newcomer among health challenges that is gaining significant attention in the mobile era. But Walker, who’s bringing the conference back to DC in 2013, says that the organization will be working on these challenges in the year to come.

(FD Xerox was a TEDMED sponsor and is underwriting TCHB’s coverage of the conference).

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