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First Impressions of Our Future Health: Thoughts From TEDMED 2012

This week, I have seen a potential future of the nation's health -- and heard from and interacted with some of the players that are trying to impact and improve it.
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This week, I have seen a potential future of the nation's health -- and heard from and interacted with some of the players that are trying to impact and improve it. Actually, I've seen many possible versions of this future and heard from quite a few of these innovative thinkers.

I'm writing this after spending several exhausting, enlightening, exhilarating days at TEDMED. TED is an organization that brings together thought leaders and visionaries who give talks that inspire. It started with a focus on technology, entertainment, and design (that's the TED) and has evolved to include an arm devoted to health and medicine. This year's conference brought forward-thinking folks with an interest in health to Washington, D.C.

This was my first year in attendance. My brain is full of ideas that I'm sorting through. Some are new to me (the penis research talk by Diane Kelly was particularly enlightening), but many fit right in with my long-standing philosophies on health. Here are a few thoughts that I'll be taking back to my health and wellness mission in St. Louis and incorporating into my other job, helping to direct the health news and information company, HealthDay, from a clinical perspective.

Point 1: The American medical system is facing problems. At the same time, a lot of innovation is available to address these problems. As one of the many TEDMED examples, tests here are being demonstrated that measure inflammation in the body. A generation ago, we had scant awareness of how this smoldering fire can spark so many conditions -- including heart disease. Now we're learning new ways to track it and attack it. Recognizing inflammation of a precursor to many acute and chronic ills that lead to enormous consequences, both physically and fiscally.

Another example is the surge of less-conventional methods for addressing and preventing disease. While attendees were learning more about technology and innovation at every turn, we were also afforded the opportunity to soothe ourselves with Reiki, aromatherapy, and relaxation techniques. Our fast-paced lives, which leave us little time for spiritual reflection, can leave us at risk for illness and physical breakdown. TEDMED doesn't just ask what we're doing to our bodies, it explores how treating the mind and spirit well is going to be integral to improving the nation's health.

Point 2: All this innovation and intervention, conventional or otherwise, means nothing without patient empowerment. The health care system can't just give better health to the public. It has to be a partnership, just like the seasoned fisher teaching a newbie how to reel in a catch. As we know, give a man a fish, he eats well on that occasion. Teach a man to fish... well, you've just opened up a whole new realm of possibility via personal empowerment. Not only can that individual better care for himself over the long haul, he is now in a position to teach others how to do so as well.

Eventually, we have to learn to "feed" our health day-to-day on our own and only rely on doctors during times of special need.

The health care system is overtaxed, and it can't shoulder the entire burden of trying to prevent and treat this staggering level of poor health in America. Each of us as consumers of the system need to start doing our part. And it looks like I am far from alone in this opinion: Conference attendees and participants voted on a list of our top 50 health challenges. The patient's role in health care was trending and rising as a topic. Given that I'm passionate about the empowerment of the health consumer -- aka "the patient" -- this caught my eye.

The medical system has seen a push in recent years to treat patients as "customers" or "consumers," terms that some people love and others hate. If patients are customers, does that mean "the customer is king," or does it mean "buyer beware" -- or both?

When we look at individuals as customers, does that mean doctors are in charge? Are both in charge somehow? How is "power" shared between them, and how should it be shared?

Perhaps we need a different definition for the relationship between doctors and the people they serve, a relationship where both teach each other -- and both learn from each other.

More thoughts from TEDMED to come.

For more by Dr. Cindy Haines, click here.

For more on TEDMED, click here.