The art and science of behavior change took center stage at this year’s TEDMED. And what a stage it was. The healthcare offshoot of the TED conference moved from its prior digs in San Diego into the elegant Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The venue helped blur the line between speaking and performance, as typified by Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, who kicked off a morning session by breaking out his best blues guitar and singing “Disease Don’t Care.”
While TEDMED is best known for presenting breakthrough technologies and approaches to fighting disease, this year’s edition had a behavioral bent. The audience of 1,700 voted via app to prioritize a long list of “Great Challenges” in health and medicine, and what came out on top was “inventing wellness programs that work.”
To that end, Mark Hyman of the Institute for Functional Medicine sent a charge through the audience with what may have been the biggest idea of the whole show, a way to apply the super-force of religion to the mega-problem of “diabesity,” the conglomeration of diabetes and obesity, which is fast on its way to affecting one in two Americans. He pointed out that obesity not only leads to heart disease but also many forms of cancer, a message that was reinforced earlier in TEDMED with a preview from the new HBO documentary, The Weight of the Nation, which presents fat as the country’s #1 health problem.
While the classic notion of “faith-based medicine,” healing disease through prayer, would no doubt be anathema to this science-steeped crowd, Dr. Hyman received a standing ovation for his idea of harnessing the power of the pulpit to get millions of Americans to live healthier lives.
Along with Rick Warren of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church, Hyman last year rolled out the Daniel Plan: God’s Prescription for Your Health, which is all about getting religious institutions to preach the gospel of eating right, exercising, achieving mental resilience and doing it all in group activities ranging from daily jogs to sermons on nutrition to Zumba classes. The daily battle against bulge is reinforced through social media and motivational videos that entertain as well as inform. “You need to watch the things you’re eating, unless you want the diabetes,” sings Pastor Jack from Saddleback Church, in one video on the site.
So far, about 50,000 people have lost about 250,000 pounds on the plan, according to Hyman. “We are using community as the delivery system,” he says, “where the group is the medicine.” His vision is to scale the Daniel Plan program to a billion people worldwide.
It seems as if the idea struck a chord precisely because so many advances in science and medicine don’t address the core problem of behavioral change. If we can find ways to motivate people to take care of themselves, it will reduce healthcare costs dramatically and free up funding for everything else.
The “everything else” was also on display at the healthcare variety show that is TEDMED. Following the short talk format, a parade of breakthrough thinkers served up medical provocations ranging from a disruptive plan to recruit college students to deliver basic healthcare to uninsured patients in hospital waiting rooms (Rebecca Onie of Health Leads) to a call to the FDA re-calculate risk in approving radical treatments to “incurable” diseases (Jonathan Glass of Emory University) to a vision for developing personalized cancer therapies (Lynda Chin of the MD Anderson Cancer Center) to a dire warning to drug makers not to mess with the forces of natural selection (Andrew Read of Northeastern) to a way to implant soft silicon chips into your heart to collect continuous cardiac data (David Icke of startup MC10) to several approaches to turning those torrents of real-time diagnostic data into actionable knowledge.
The data-driven revolution was taken up a few notches by Leslie Saxon of the USC Center for Body Computing, who unveiled everyheartbeat.org, an ambitious plan to get 8 billion heartbeats online via a simple diagnostic device that links to smart phones and continually takes your pulse and scans your heart for irregularities.
The vision for continuous monitoring of vital signs is a sound one, but if all we are doing is increasing our intake of data on failing health, it won’t do us much good. That’s why the TEDMED consensus that all healthcare must be linked to the social science of behavior seemed so refreshing.
Evan Schwartz is the Director of Storytelling at Innosight.