The 21 Most Fascinating Things I Learned at TEDMED

By Jennifer Schlimgen, AIA, Vice President, Team Leader Healthcare

TEDMED, the independent health and medicine edition of the world-famous TED conference, is clearly producing a winning combination and they are onto something very smart. This great first impression is how my recent TEDMED experience began.

On a beautiful late fall night in the Palm Springs desert, a growing crowd gathered expectantly in the foyer of the historic LaQuinta resort ballroom, waiting for doors to open. With a blare of trumpets (yes, this really happened!) followed by enthusiastic live music, all doors opened simultaneously, and the participants rushed to get a good seat. Mine was front and center. I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me and was very surprised to hear her say “I’m so excited to be here! This has been on my bucket list for years!” Wow, I thought – what a reputation this event has! Then I learned she was in fund development with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in the world solely dedicated to improving health.

What makes TEDMED bucket list worthy? This is a highly curated event. I had to apply to be accepted to attend. I submitted the required resume and references and was delighted I was successful, perhaps due in part to Kahler Slater’s recent patient experience research published in the Beryl Institute’s peer reviewed Patient Experience Journal and subsequently presented at their annual PX international conference. The only architect at the event, I was surrounded by researchers, clinicians, entrepreneurs, students and innovators from so many fascinating backgrounds. The entire conference was about cross pollination – a themed celebration of imagination where innovators literally meet in The Hive, to discover new paths to a healthier world.

All TEDMED presenters and their stories were amazing. There were certainly many strong opening statements to catch my attention. Among all of them, one that will stick with me always, was the one powered by (to borrow a TEDMED phrase) Neonatal Health Innovator Queen Dube of Blantyre, Malawi: “Not one baby died on the first day of my training in London.” You could’ve heard a pin drop. In fact, none died in her first year. She knew when she returned home to Africa, where 80% of the one million newborn deaths each year are preventable, that she needed an innovative alternative to the expensive equipment she had used in her London hospital. She invited hundreds of engineering students to solve the challenge of the three major newborn killers: infection, jaundice and fluids. With a goal of reducing newborn death rates in Africa by 50%, Queen eventually partnered with NEST 360° to develop low fidelity versions of the three major pieces of technology she needed. The survival rate for her Malawi neonates rose dramatically. Her hospital is now providing significantly higher value healthcare and at a much lower cost than many other countries.

Neonatal Health Innovator Queen Dube of Blantyre, Malawi

There were so many compelling stories of powerful results like these, plus numerous audacious two minute “what if” scenarios enticing participants to learn more. My highlights, the most fascinating 21, include:

  1. Neurosurgeons are using AI to find ways to minimize diagnostic steps and time elapsed from trauma to surgery to preserve irreplaceable brain function and save lives.
  2. Neuro researchers are using routine MRIs to predict cognitive futures before dementia symptoms are visible – in time to create the opportunity to treat. Today treatment is too late. Damage has already been done by the time dementia has been diagnosed.
  3. Neurobiologists are studying neural networks and the ARC gene role in memory encoding.
  4. Synthetic biologists are developing ways to use your cell phone to improve your health.
  5. Tech developers are creating a consumer-centric transformation. What if doctors were waiting for patients instead of patients waiting for doctors?
  6. Robotic engineers are developing wearable robotics to improve post trauma mobility.
  7. Primary care physicians are adding food pantries to clinics and prescribing housing for homeless.
  8. Economic analysts are finding high prices, not waste or over-use, drive high health care costs in the US (debunking numerous myths). A fragmented system with administrative costs that are too high results in 30 cents of every US healthcare dollar spent going to administrative costs. The lack of transparency in pricing is creating high charges. (In the US, drugs, primary care and diagnostics costs are two times what other countries charge.) Combine these with our decreasing competitiveness due to mergers and acquisitions and all of these factors are contributing to an unmanageable trajectory.
  9. Behavioral Economists are employing loss incentives to motivate healthy behaviors.
  10. Educators are finding the best way to talk to teenagers about safe sex and violence-free dating is through the vehicle of pornography. They are all ears!
  11. Public health criminologists are finding a correlation between gun violence and domestic violence and are recommending legislation that would decrease gun fatalities.
  12. Geneticists are mapping large scale DNA. Forensic geneticists recently identified the Golden State Killer and solved 20 other cold cases.
  13. Bio-researchers are exploring the gut as the window to the brain and the key to novel drug therapies.
  14. Cancer researchers are applying genetically engineered versions of a patients’ own T cells (known as CAR T cell immunotherapy), a technique previously developed for HIV treatment, to childhood Leukemia - with great success. The telltale when this treatment is working? A 28-day fever that literally burns up tumors. Recently approved by the FDA, this breakthrough has the potential of helping patients with many other types of cancers.
  15. Pharmaceutical researchers are exploring the untapped resource of soil (yes – the dirt beneath our feet!) in developing new medications. We currently only know one percent of what it contains.
  16. Epidemiologists are
    • Developing tools to fight pandemics quickly by studying contagious diseases that are always present, like painting vaccine onto bat wings in South America to prevent the spread of rabies
    • Creating more effective vaccine patches in lieu of inoculations which require refrigeration, not available in many parts of the world.
  17. Innovators are developing
    • A new syringe that is cheaper, smaller and easier to dispose of
    • A full body ultrasound in a stethoscope
    • A SurgiBox – creating the portable environment to do safe surgery any time, any place, in a clear plastic bubble that comes with a battery powered backpack including all supplies needed
  18. Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico are promoting something every community and every healthcare organization should have for disaster preparedness - a complete off the grid solar infrastructure, designed for them by retired Corps of Engineers volunteers.
  19. Data analysts are predicting emergencies and preventing them before they occur, updating the antiquated 911 system.
  20. Mental health experts are studying
    • Gender identity impact
    • Boys’ need for close friends into adulthood
    • Perfectionism trait as a predictor of mental illness
  21. Sound researchers are finding
    • ICU alarms are discordant and create a highly negative impact on staff as well as patients. Tune them!
    • Discordant noise shortens life. (This reminded me of the Sound Study Kahler Slater conducted at SSM St. Mary’s Madison, where we utilized Evidenced Based Design to reduce noise occurrences from three of the highest decibel sound sources, of the 104 sources identified in the study: noise related to the elevators, the ice machine and the vacuum. This resulted in scores 13.5% above the national average in quietness at night at St. Mary’s Hospital.)
A SurgiBox – creating the portable environment to do safe surgery any time, any place, in a clear plastic bubble that comes with a battery powered backpack including all supplies needed

There are so many exciting developments that will affect our health in the future! And I realized many presenters’ stories had something in common. When facing a crisis, they employed something from another realm to solve a problem in an unexpected way. In other words, they were innovative. To paraphrase Wikipedia, Innovation is a new idea, or more-effective device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models…” This is exactly what Kahler Slater provides with our healthcare design services, bringing together strategy, technology, operations and design expertise from multiple realms (healthcare, senior living, wellness, hospitality, retail, business environments and environmental branding) to create ideal healthcare experiences and achieve powerful results for our clients. It’s what is needed now more than ever in American healthcare.

TEDMED describes itself as inspiring and catalyzing a healthier humanity – a tagline to which every architect, designer, and healthcare organization should aspire.