By Risa Wilkerson on November 15, 2017
That was TEDMED 2017’s theme this month. Many of the talks were introduced with “what if” statements. “What if electricity were medicine?” “What if we could detect diseases so early that we could avoid them altogether?” Too often, our impulse to bridge this kind of thinking to immediate, plausible action limits the creative problem-solving we’re all capable of.
TEDMED (the health and medicine edition of the TED conference) convenes and curates extraordinary, multidisciplinary people and ideas in pursuit of unexpected connections that accelerate innovation in health and medicine.
I was privileged to attend this year. As expected, many of the talks focused on disease and technical issues such as Ebola, opioids, molecular and cellular processes, and the use of organoids to model disease and treatments in the brain. It was fascinating, but I was anxious to hear ideas and innovations in community-based approaches to population health to share with our partners and inform our work. Although they were the exception to the rule, they showed up in various ways.
Jim Johnson, Director of the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, spoke about his work in Huntington, WV, where one in 10 residents is addicted to opioids. As a former police chief, he once took a traditional criminal-focused approach to the drug crisis. But over time, he realized the many factors involved and formed a multi-sector partnership to develop the first harm-reduction program in the state. This program includes education, syringe exchange, and distribution of Nalaxone (a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose), and has successfully reversed 1,000 opioid overdoses. He works with a limitless view of the people who are suffering, and knows that they, too, hold keys to reversing this epidemic.
Keenan Wyrobek, co-founder of Zipline, is designing, building, and deploying drones to deliver life-saving blood and medical supplies to some of the most difficult places to reach on earth—before the deliveries become so old that they’re useless. He talked about realizing that they couldn’t effectively work in isolated labs. “We only got the solutions right when we worked hand-in-hand with doctors and communities,” he said. With this limitless approach to geography and partnership, lives are being saved, and no donated blood has expired.
Artist Jennifer Chenoweth collaborated with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, among others, to explore belonging and place attachment. She then created an interactive public art project with diverse engagement strategies, including outreach to underserved communities of all ages. The resulting hedonic map portrays the feelings, stories, and life experiences of people living in and visiting Austin, Texas.” She documented answers to questions like, “Where did you fall in love?” “Where did you laugh the hardest?” “Where did you first face your mortality?” The result is a striking topographical map. With limitless ideas about community, she sees that when emotion is connected to location, location is no longer understood as just a space, but as a place full of human interaction.
What if we all took a limitless view of the world when trying to solve complex problems? Can mapped emotions strengthen trauma-informed approaches to community wellbeing? Or help expand social connections across neighborhoods? Can rural collaborators use new technologies to not only send medical supplies to far-flung places, but also draw on residents’ lived experiences to solve other health barriers caused by geographic isolation? What if we looked more closely at our own barriers to creating impact and asked, “What would we do if our resources were limitless?” You never know where this kind of thinking will take you.