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TEDMED: Poetry Slam for Innovators

Susan Newberry Klees, Senior Consultant, FKH

I have just returned from TEDMED, a gravity force field for the latest innovations in medical technology and healthcare problem solving. The conference was part poetry slam and part innovation speed dating for the 800 or so leaders in medicine that attended.

The conference (more on that terminology in a moment), was rife with the unexpected. Having spent my career attending medical gatherings where scientists present unreadable data charts on ubiquitous midnight blue slides, I knew I was in for something different when the meeting opened with a break dancer’s riveting performance to techno music.

The wonder continued for 3 more days. There were presentations on the application of focused ultrasound to non-invasively ablate unhealthy tissue; technology to make nerves fluorescently glow during surgery to help avoid inadvertent injury; creating living structures of prescribed shape and function for research, and eventually the creation of whole organs; and a prosthetic device that decodes patterns of electrical activity to enable the blind to see.

Now back to the terminology. The word conference does not do TEDMED justice. It is more like a collision — many perspectives colliding together to break open our minds and ultimately improve the collective state of medicine. Beyond the innovations being shared, it was the unexpected range of the talks that really stood out and made the gathering worthwhile.

The talks felt off-script and more authentic than the usual fare dished up at conventions. This was especially refreshing from our government leaders. We heard the U.S. Surgeon General talking about the health benefits of joy. The onstage conversation between the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and National Coordinator for Health IT felt more like engaging performance art than technology lecture.

There were a few talks that were great circus entertainment for medical nerds. An entrepreneur demonstrated how his bioengineered cells may one day be used as artificial meat by cooking some of his newly minted cells on stage and eating them (with salt and pepper to taste). A mechanical engineer/inventor had a camera inserted up his nose live on stage so the audience could see his larynx vibrate while he beatboxed (ask your kids what that is).

The most stirring presentations were about shoes – walking or rolling in other people’s that is. One physician shared the x-ray of a patient with an unusual mass in his chest. He described how he sought out expert colleagues across the country to discuss the best treatment approach. He then lifted his baseball cap to show his naked post-chemotherapy head. He was the patient. The audience gasped.

And there was the architect, unexpectedly confined to a wheelchair by a wayward sinus infection. He shared how his frustrations with the environment and tools in his rehab facility inspired him to re-design hospital furniture to truly addresses patient needs. He has all of his design team spend a full week living in a wheelchair to understand how it feels. Maybe we all need to live in the wheelchairs of our mission.

As I work on the close to this piece, I shift through the TEDMED program book. I notice that all of the talks were titled as questions – addressing the what, when and hows of tackling medicine’s most vexing challenges. While some talks provided thought-provoking answers, it is up to all of us in health and medicine to implement the solutions. Somehow, I don’t think that they will come from those who have been walking the halls of typical conferences for decades.

I believe the Drano that will break through the bottlenecks of progress will come from people like the young man I met on the last day of the conference. He did not follow the scripted path of the older generation that focuses on getting degree letters after your name, then joining the mainstream path toward innovation. He dropped out of MIT. He is 20-something and has already tackled the low hanging fruit of medical innovation (creating and marketing an iPhone-compatible glucose strip test), and is now looking for the next big challenge. Our futures may depend on his success.