TEDMED 2009: The Future Of Cancer Medicine

Day 2 at TEDMED 2009 and the energy is high. This morning's session began with John Abele, the co-founder of the Boston Scientific Corporation, who spoke about collaboration in technology and science. First, he showed us a dictionary definition of collaboration, then jokingly showed us that there's no definition for the word, collaboration, in a medical dictionary. His point? This was symbolic of the problem in medicine where turf wars exist more often than collaboration. Next, Eric Silfen, the chief medical officer at Philips, spoke about developing technology to performing heart surgery on babies in utero where complications and trauma can be avoided.

But it was David Agus, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Center for Applied Molecular Medicine and the USC Westside Prostate Cancer Center, who stole the show. His talk focused around cancer and the misinformation about it. He said the National Cancer Institute is wrong. Cancer isn't a disease of the genes; it's a disease of the microenvironment.

The way cancer is currently diagnosed, he said, is by pattern recognition: symptoms (tired, bloated, etc.), anatomic descriptions (tumor), body part (breast, lung), and radiographic descriptions. He suggests that a more precise diagnosis would be by cause of cancer (pathogenic reasons), rather than by anatomic location or physical symptoms. If you can start to identify what you could and what you're up against then it's easier to prevent.

Back to the idea of the microenvironment. He looks at the patient as a system, health as a goal state, and treatments as controllable variables. Through the field of proteomics, they will begin to understand how your specific body will respond to various treatment options.

His advice to doctors? Get away from reductionist thinking, no technology will "win" in the healthcare game, the technology itself will win and then patients will win.

Another compelling speaker was Tim Brown, the president and CEO of IDEO. He spoke about design thinking and how it encourages us to approach problem solving differently and create new choices that haven't existed before. "Design is human-centered," he says, but "integrates technology and economics."

This main point that it's important to know the motivation and aspirations of a set group of people to understand the best design system to put into place. For example he said one child dies every 24 seconds from unsafe injection processes. So the design answer was to create needles that destruct after one use to prevent those administering the vaccine from reusing needles. Another mind-blowing example was how, through design thinking, his team was able to reduce the average time that nurses spend away from patients during a shift change from 40 minutes to 12 minutes using communication techniques that can be done in front of patients instead of retreating to a break room. Another fun example was an assignment that deals with teen pregnancy. His team designed a sticker of the bottom half of a pregnant woman with an exposed belly and pasted it in women's bathrooms, that way when washing hands, it appears your lower half is pregnant. The text reads: "Are you ready for this?"

More to come throughout the day... stay tuned.

Here's to your health!

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