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At TEDMED 2015: Behind the glitz, substantive issues

This year's TEDMED was held Nov. 18-20 in Palm Springs, Calif. Stanford Medicine is a medical research institution partner of TEDMED, and a group of MD and PhD students who represented Stanford at the conference will be sharing their experiences here. 

TEDMED stage - Lichy HanI admit, I was skeptical heading into the TEDMED conference.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching TED talks online, and I often listen to Guy Raz on the TED Radio Hour.

However, I’ve always viewed TED primarily as a source of entertainment, a chance to hear fascinating  personal adventures, and the popular science stories that fill us with awe. I’ve thought much less of TED as an entity that could create new knowledge, value and impact beyond storytelling and the occasional self-help guidance.

I’m happy to say that I was wrong.

TED has come under fire from some who paint it as a self-congratulatory echo-chamber of the wealthy elite that counter-productively obfuscates the missions of many speakers by burying their messages in flashy but ultimately meaningless evangelism - “things that make us feel good but which don’t work.” And while, having never attended, I couldn’t share these convictions, the curmudgeon in me could see the logic behind them.

To some extent, those concerns were realized. General admission was $5,000. Speakers were edgily rebranded as “superheroes” or “shepherds,” the kind of visionary titles that might be parodied in an episode of HBO’s "Silicon Valley." The conference opened with a rock concert and a talk with a main takeaway that seemed to be that female baboons use their male counterparts as sexual objects. There are certainly many important issues embedded in that discussion, but the sensationalist, intentionally provocative delivery came across more Cosmo than Betty Friedan. Sex sells, it seems, even at medical conferences.

But what is it that we’re buying – and is it worth it? I believe so.

As a powerhouse of distributing ideas globally, TED has a social duty to promote not only those ideas that entertain and those that inspire, but also those that disgust, those that depress, and those that make us appreciate. With all eyes upon it, TED can bring some of the most difficult and sensitive, but necessary, topics to the forefront of the conversation.

In particular, I was impressed at the spotlight placed on mental health, an often downplayed and taboo topic that is nevertheless a core element of our profession and school, and my own experiences, friends, and hometown. Pamela Wible, MD, narrated horrifying letters of physician suicide, illustrating great failures in our medical training system. Without TED, few attendees would ever be exposed to these realities. Melissa Walker shared what it was like to have PTSD, and how art therapy could empower veterans to heal when drugs and counseling failed. The Surgeon General himself, Vivek Murthy, MD, chose to focus his TEDMED time on the importance of mindfulness and stress reduction in improving physical and psychiatric outcomes in middle school children.

Many speakers raised concerns about issues ranging from eugenics to institutional racism in healthcare, but what struck me most was how frequently “this is a big problem…” was answered immediately with “…and here’s what we’ve done to fix it...” Activist Raj Patel described how uprooting traditional gender roles was necessary to solve food shortages in Malawi. Bryant Terry recounted teaching nutritional programs to disadvantaged teens in New York. Kenneth Nealson, PhD, a USC professor, and engineer Peter Janicki described new economically sustainable methods that turn sewage and garbage into clean drinking water. All were clear to end with the message “…but there’s a ways to go.”

Is some of the TEDMED glamorization over the top? Absolutely. Are all of the ideas going to radically change the world? Maybe not. But TED has the power to bring people together to share their ideas, to collaborate on new ones, and to showcase their vulnerabilities, failures and unsolved challenges to each other and to the world. That in itself is an idea worth spreading.

Brian Hsueh is an MD/PhD student in neuroscience and bioengineering. He spends his days working on new technologies to understand and treat diseases of the brain, and his nights trying to find economically feasible ways to bring those technologies to patients.

Photo by Lichy Han

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