About the author: Layla McCay is a medical doctor and global health specialist, with a special interest in global health technology and innovation. She has worked across health policy sectors, from the World Health Organization and the World Bank to International NGOs and the British Government. She teaches international health at Georgetown University. You can find her on Twitter @LaylaMcCay
This post first appeared on the National Geographic blog here.
The most common overheard comment during TEDMED was “that could be a game-changer.”
The question of what exactly makes a “game-changer” is open to interpretation. Which of the nearly fifty ideas presented on the TEDMED stage this year will turn out to change the face of health and healthcare depends on where they spread, who receives them, and what is done with them. Since the game in question is health, our lives could depend on the outcome.
Opening the mind is an essential theme for a conference like TEDMED. Physicians were challenged as being ‘species snobs’ for failing to harness the knowledge of veterinarians to better understand and treat diseases in humans – and were entreated to use the animal kingdom, and diverse industries, to inspire innovations – like re-appropriating porcupine quills to seal wounds, or air bags for elderly people whose falls put them at risk of breaking a hip.
TEDMED’s speakers called for better detective skills to track down the true causes of ill health, from epidemics to drug abuse. Few threats to our health are new, so the typical question: ‘Why has this invader come amongst us?’ could perhaps become ‘Why is this pre-existing threat causing problems specifically here, now, to these people?’ That’s why an outbreak of dengue fever in Florida could be superficially attributed to the influx of dengue-carrying mosquitos from elsewhere – or attributed to a side effect of the recession (stagnant water in swimming pools expanding dengue mosquito breeding grounds, for example).
Opening our minds is not the only route our brains can take to better health. There are unexploited opportunities to harness how our brains work to make us healthier, whether you want to call it trickery or sophisticated brain stimulation. It turns out that if we take a pill that contains nothing but sugar, known as a placebo, it can still help cure our diseases – even if we know it’s a placebo. This effect could be harnessed to help heal our bodies from a range of illnesses. We can also try more sleep – there’s a theory that this might just help to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, thanks to triggering the brain’s nightly bout of spring cleaning. And it seems we can heal better and feel better, just by adjusting our background light and the sounds we hear, especially in hospitals.
We can also use our brains to turn information into real life choices that promote health. For example, it is common knowledge that breastfeeding is healthy for babies, but less is made of the fact that breastfeeding is also healthier for mothers, reducing their risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. On the other side of health promotion, rather than waiting for a resolution to the gun control debate, tech solutions could be adopted right now to reduce gun crime, like automatically stamping registered gun owner details onto bullets as they are fired. Technology can also help reduce ill health caused by healthcare – like a non-reusable syringe that helps prevent the many infections such as HIV caused by health workers all over the world reusing needles with different people, without sterilization in between patients. TEDMED Chairman, Jay Walker, explained that while the T in TEDMED stands for technology, “technology is not an answer – it’s a tool.”
But tools are needed in a health care delivery system that is driven by humanity. Doctors are not perfect machines: they have their own views and ethical values and skills and flaws, and are, by definition, fallible. Expecting homogeneity or perfection can be dangerous – recognizing the inevitability of error should be leading not to blame and shame, but to designing better safeguards.
But then again, the population is not perfect either. The requirement for legal organ donation to be entirely altruistic makes it a niche choice – and contributes to the huge organ shortage in places like the US. There are pros and cons, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Iran, where live organ donors are apparently honored, cared for and compensated, ensuring an influx of donors, meaning nobody who needs a new kidney has to die without one.
And as for patients, perhaps allowing themselves to be defined by an illness for too long may be a natural response to trauma, but it may also inhibit their recovery. And instead of trying to emulate ‘normal’, another, positive option is to boldly embrace differences, from the alternative thinking styles autism can bring, to festooning a prosthetic limb in chrome, glitter, or art.
Finally, TEDMED reminds its delegates that knowledge is fleeting, not eternal – what is once believed to be true may be later disproved. So we should avoid rigidity in our beliefs and keep asking questions. It is, perhaps, this thought that drives all innovation – and making us all understand this may be the real game-changer at TEDMED.