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The Experience of TEDMED 2013

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It began for me with a crouton. Not just any crouton, mind you, but perhaps the best crouton I've ever had. I don't know how it came to be so good, but I do know that this crouton was selected with care, diligently adhering to a food strategy that would help a sea of health care devotees view the "health tool" of food selection through a different lens. And that's what TEDMED does best: help us see things through a different lens.

You see, TEDMED is not just another conference. No -- it's an experience. Inclusive of the food they provide attendees (who are not referred to as attendees but, rather, delegates) as well as the way they present this food. A bountiful arrangement of plant- and grain-based selections (jicama, anyone?) allowing the sampling of a range of options one wouldn't normally get on a daily basis. And offering small plates rather than the regular, adult size ones we are so accustomed to in America. A different approach... a thoughtful approach. That's TEDMED.

I guess for me it must really be all about the food because that's the first thing that came back to me from last year -- how cool it was that they focused on a plant- and grain-based menu for the entire conference. And this year, they did it again and the memories came flooding back. The other thing about TEDMED: Yes, they are broaching innovative and novel thoughts, including discussion and demonstration of cutting-edge technologies. But what really strikes me is that so much of what we cover and take deep dives into is the stuff that is accessible to everyone: communication, community engagement, focus on healthier choices, people skills, enhancing self-awareness, and learning though life lessons.

TEDMED is like Disneyland for nerds: so much stimulation at every turn, there is no way you can really absorb it all -- but it sure is fun to try. They have the main stage presentations -- the ones simulcast out across the web. But they have other stuff too -- arguably even better than the main acts. Stuff like starting the day running with "Ultramarathon Man" Dean Karnazes. Running not your thing? You can check out a yoga class or, better yet, do an hour of meditation before starting your day at the Kennedy Center.

Also, beyond the stage are "The Hive" and "The Great Challenges." In "The Hive," innovators and entrepreneurs demonstrate technologies and applications such as a smart phone physical; Breathwear, a clip-and-go respiration sensor that streams breathing patterns to a user's smart phone; Brain Sentry, a helmet-mounted sensor that alerts when an athlete experiences a large impact to the head; and NudgeRx which provides an internet-based, post-hospital daily discharge monitoring service to help reduce unplanned readmission and ER visits. The 20 Great Challenges of health and medicine leveraged 120 experts contributing unique perspectives on such topics as The Role of the Patient and Eliminating Medical Errors. The Great Challenges are ongoing with an online engagement platform with a digital community of 35 million explorers.

TEDMED 2013 was held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. April 16-19 and was simulcast to thousands of affiliated institutions nationally and internationally. These included medical schools, teaching hospitals, non-profits, VA clinics, and health-focused government agencies. TEDMED 2013 featured 50+ speakers/performers and nearly 2,000 participants (the delegates), as well as the 50 innovative start-ups housed in The Hive.

TEDMED 2013 opened its stage presentations with a musical performance by Kishi Bashi, the intent of which was to help delegates be present and engaged in what was to follow. Numerous stage presentations are what followed, including Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who talked about how his city was once on the list of most obese cities as selected for a magazine publication. Five years later, it was on the list of the fittest cities. Cornett, fueled both by a personal battle against overweight/obesity as well as a mayoral competitive urge to get his city off the list of most obese cities, set about creating a community that was "made for people rather than communities built for cars." He worked with businesses in his city, sometimes known as the "fast-food capital of the world" to create opportunities for healthy choices -- he worked with Taco Bell to work on an "al fresco" line with fewer high-fat, high-calories toppings, stating that "even once you've chosen Taco Bell, there are still better choices that can be made."

Another stage presentation offered the question/answer session "What Is Cancer" with Dr. David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering, who also heads USC's Westside Cancer Center and the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. Dr. Agus spoke of the need to better understand what cancer actually is, as well as the capabilities of modern science and managing patient expectations.

He spoke of cancer as a process that is at work in each of us -- the only question is: What stage of cancer are you in? He also spoke of treatment strategy and treatment goals. Getting aggressive about cancer isn't always the best strategy. If cancer isn't going to cause problems or isn't going to grow, these tactics can cause much harm at little benefit. "My job as a cancer doctor is to help people live longer, better," he said, citing several tools at his disposal now that help allow him to do that, including baby aspirin and statins, both current treatments linked with extended survival in various cancer diagnoses and stages.

And the single best tool that can help him know which of these are most helpful for any individual patient? Communication. Asking the simple questions: How are you doing? Do you feel better? Do you feel worse?

So what's really the point of TEDMED? To liberate from routine and help our most innovative thinkers take chances and do things they wouldn't normally do, see things through a different lens. Innovate our way to a better future.

But what I believe bears repeating in a rapidly changing health landscape with escalating costs and declining outcomes: The single best technology isn't a technology at all. It's asking the patient: "How do you feel?"

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