Affordable Care Act, healthcare — September 30, 2014

TEDMED 2014 showcases the bigger picture of health reform

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It’s not just about health insurance. It’s about reimagining the way we deliver care.


If I could only tell you one thing I saw at TEDMED 2014, it would be this: Health reform goes far deeper than the Affordable Care Act (ACA). That isn’t news to me, but it was gratifying to see some of the leading minds in health and medicine articulating it so clearly.

There was very little discussion of the ACA or health insurance from the stage, but there was plenty of information shared about other ways America must overhaul its healthcare system — about what’s necessary to transform it from a “sick care” system into a system that promotes true health and wellness.

Presenters spoke about how we must change our mindset about the causes of and treatments for addiction — and not just for drugs and alcohol but for food, an addiction that’s created an epidemic of obesity in the United States. They talked about our country’s woefully inadequate system of live organ donation, which pales in comparison to the robust program that exists in Iraq.

There were presentations on the dangers of overprescribing medications, from antibiotics to antidepressants, and on the problem of syringe re-use and sharing that claims 1.3 million lives every year. The experts onstage didn’t just have concerns — they had solutions with the potential to revolutionize healthcare. As just one example, Marc Koska presented his design for a syringe that self-destructs after one use. During his presentation, it was announced that the World Health Organization (WHO) is introducing a related safe injection initiative later this year.

Experts talked about the impact of poverty on health, and of the need to recognize hidden causes of disease such as the increased risk of heart disease in women who don’t breastfeed.

There was a fascinating presentation about how the very environments where people go to get well — namely hospitals — can make patients and providers sick. The materials used to build these facilities and the chemicals used to clean them are a hazard to both human health and the environment, but fortunately some innovators and health systems are already working to change all that.

Leaders in healthcare addressed many other ways our system can be improved, from reducing medical errors to providing more valuable training for new doctors. There’s even one physician, Leana Wen, who is pushing for what she calls “radical transparency” — urging doctors to provide detailed information about themselves, so patients can make educated decisions when choosing doctors.

Many of the presentations focused on the patient experience, which underscored the increasing prominence of the patient-centered care model. That fact was driven home most clearly in the many conversations I had with my fellow delegates between sessions.

There was an area in the event space devoted to TEDMED’s Great Challenges program, which explores the most complex issues in health and medicine today — “knotty issues that cannot be fixed with a simple cure and require a deeper understanding to truly resolve,” according to TEDMED. I’ve been an active member of the Great Challenges community since 2013, and took part in some fascinating conversations at TEDMED regarding the topic closest to my heart: The Role of the Patient. Did we come up with solutions? Not yet, but we shared ideas and made connections that may blossom in the future.

Even at the social gatherings, there was an opportunity to brainstorm. At a spectacular party TEDMED hosted for us at the Library of Congress, I spoke with a patient family centered care advisor whose daughter is a transplant recipient. She told me that her family hadn’t yet seen the benefits of the ACA — but had every confidence they would, especially if we succeed in insurance industry reform.

“I know it’s a process and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said. “And things are a lot better already than they were before the law.”

This is the kind of big-picture thinking TEDMED generates.

I share her view that the ACA is an important first step toward true healthcare reform. And as important as insurance industry reform is, I know it’s about so much more than insurance.

What I saw at TEDMED was a welcome reminder that health reform is about every single aspect of America’s healthcare system. It’s about the ways we deliver care to patients, and the way we investigate new ways of promoting health and wellness. It’s about being willing to adapt and give new strategies a try, even if they get off to a bumpy start. It’s about collaboration and innovation, and knowing that for everything we do know there are millions of things we don’t.

I left TEDMED feeling abundantly hopeful about where health reform will take us. Because there’s no better place than TEDMED to see the future of health and medicine unfolding, right before your eyes.

For another perspective on my TEDMED 2014 experience, visit my personal blog.

[Photos by Amy Lynn Smith, except for the bottom image captured by a kind anonymous TEDMED delegate. That’s me, wearing my jacket created by Regina Holliday for The Walking Gallery.]

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