TEDMED, an annual quasi-Davos/SXSW gathering for medical minds, is a zoo for everything health care-related. Newly relocated to Washington, D.C. from San Diego, the conference has a steep entry price (tickets run $4,950, with fees waived for a few hundred scholarship recipients) and the Kennedy Center is filled with over 1,500 of health care’s sharpest minds. This year, guests voted on 20 “Great Challenges” that medicine needs to tackle--with 50 challenges in all advocated by individual TEDMED attendees. Looking at the results gives us a unique vantage point on what’s on the mind of big pharma, biotech firms, and top doctors.
Health’s sharpest are especially worried about wellness for the general public. The winning challenge was to invent wellness programs that work. According to Shapeup's Rajiv Kumar, who advocated the initiative, “wellness programs aren’t always flashy, don’t involve James Bond-like gadgets, and are unlikely to be featured on the front page of Popular Science. But they move the needle in the right direction when it comes to population health, and for that reason they deserve more attention.”
The number two winner was “the caregiver crisis,” sponsored by Suzanne Geffen Mintz of the National Family Caregivers Association. Issues facing caregivers and loved ones were a constant topic at TEDMED, with multiple speakers dedicating time to the topic. Geffen Mintz told TEDMED that she wants the public to “document what we do. We’re like illegal aliens. We need to be in medical records--both in the patient’s records and in our own.”
TEDMED’s number three concern was the role of the patient. This challenge was advocated by Dave deBronkart of e-Patient Dave, a Stage IV cancer survivor who is one of the United States’ most prominent patients-rights activists. For doctors and surgeons for whom medicine is a profession, treating patients like inanimate objects instead of people has often been a danger of the field. Many of TEDMED’s speakers talked about their experiences as patients. Edward Gavagan of design firm PraxisNYC gave a searing talk about surviving a brutal random stabbing and American Red Cross head Gail McGovern spoke about surviving breast cancer.
The other top challenges for TEDMED’s experts and well-heeled business types are “the obesity crisis,” “achieving medical innovation,” “managing chronic diseases,” “medical communication,” “reducing childhood obesity,” “making prevention popular,” and “end of life care.” The challenges are a new addition for TEDMED in 2012; curator Jay Walker's idea is that special activities and discussions will be held throughout 2012 for the 20 highest-voted challenges.
Discussions at TEDMED, however, are ultimately tempered by the event’s steep admission fee. Although scholarship recipients come from all walks of life, attendees disproportionately represent big pharma, established biotech firms, private hospitals, and the government. The conference allows large firms a chance to show themselves in a better light; despite the conspicuously healthy food at the lunchtime buffet tables, chocolate maker Mars--famous for obesity-contributing treats such as Snickers and M&Ms--is a prominent sponsor. Discussions at parties and in the hallway were geared toward networking and dealmaking. One topic that was conspicuously quiet in on-stage discussions was that nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, and the challenges of health care for low-income populations in general. While TEDMED’s challenges give a fascinating window onto what health care’s elite think matters, it still does not change the fact that there’s still no one to pay the caregiver or fund the wellness initiatives for a huge chunk of the American population.