SXSW: The Future of Healthcare

by Big Tomorrow| March 7, 2017 | More Articles

Our third installment of SXSW: Conversations & Context dives into issues surrounding our healthcare industry. We checked in with four leading physicians to get their take on the current state, what lies ahead, and how to make the most of a multi-industry conference like SXSW.

We hope the following excerpts from our conversations will give you some ideas for how to approach your visit to SXSW.

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S. Claiborne “Clay” Johnston, MD, PhD
Dell Medical School at UT Austin

The interplay between technology and healthcare. This is where our conversation began with Clay Johnston, Dean of Dell Medical School at UT Austin. The 2016 ‘Austinite of the Year’ will be participating in the panel, Collaborative Innovation in the Digital Health Age.

BT: What kind of impact is technology having in your industry right now?

CJ: Technology has been dramatically changing many industries. I think healthcare is actually one of the least impacted so far. We’re still in the stage of opening people’s minds to the possibilities, stuff as simple as data collection and sharing, to more provocative ideas like AI and machine learning’s ability to recognize patterns in diagnostics. These are the kind of topics I think SXSW is well suited to address. Progress happens pretty slowly in healthcare. I think healthcare insiders and tech industry evangelists can actually learn a lot from each other. We need more entrepreneurs, but experienced healthcare veterans who understand our current realities need to help pave the way for change.

BT: What will some of the first applications of technology be?

CJ: On the care front, the AI demos on X-ray readings are encouraging. Not so comforting for radiologists. But I don’t think AI will replace physicians. It will more likely produce better tools for us to do our jobs.

For administrators, documentation should be another win. I’ve never met a physician that enjoys it. It’s the number one source of physician dissatisfaction and technology is poised to solve this in significant ways, and give time back to care providers.

BT: Do you think these changes will deter students away from studying medicine?

CJ: No, I actually think these technology advancements should make their careers more satisfying. Med students will need to develop different skill sets around communications and entrepreneurship to succeed.

BT: Will it change how you recruit or select students?

CJ: Our curriculum is unique in that it reduces memorization learning, and leaves room for an innovation/leadership block. The Design Institute for Health, led by Stacey Chang, developed the curriculum for this. This is part of what makes our program so selective.

We already look for evidence of creativity, passion, leadership in candidates’ past experience, often in areas outside of school. During the interview process, we also do a group problem solving task. Five people have to solve it together. This lets us see candidates’ communication skills, how well they collaborate, and what kind of leaders they will be. It’s very telling.

So what’s your plan for SXSW this year? Any specific sessions you’ll attend?

CJ: There’s a broad range of thinking at SXSW, so I want to take advantage of that. There ‘s a panel on health education A #)$%(*% Crisis: Training the Newest Gen of Docs. Another one called Can I Trust My AI Therapist? about AI replacing therapy. The panel on sharing data Giving Back: How Returning Data Can Improve Health looks good as well. Stephen Friend is on the panel. I’ve been following his work and am curious to hear what progress they’ve made. Real Stories of Success from Health Hackathons also interests me. We are trying to figure out how to support the broader entrepreneurial community. I’m not entirely convinced about hackathons but curious to see how they frame it.

Are there any topics you’re NOT seeing that should be discussed at a venue like SXSW?

CJ: Somehow we need to get the communities that are most affected by health inequalities more entrepreneurially involved in creating the solutions. It would be great to start seeing that. Dr. Andrey Ostrovsky’s talk Medicaid: An Undiscovered $500 BILLION Market will be talking about opportunities for underserved communities and patients on Medicaid. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something.

Arshya Vahabzadeh, MD
Chief Medical Officer,
Brain Power
Physician/Faculty, Harvard Medical School

Brain Power is a neurotechnology company that helps children and adults with autism to learn important social and cognitive skills. Dr. Vahabzadeh talked with us about the opportunities and challenges technology brings to his diverse group of patients — a topic explored in his SXSW panel Mind the Machines: Neurotech and AI for Brain Health.

BT: What are the biggest obstacles you face in serving patients with autism?

AV: Well, the biggest obstacle is appreciating the big picture. Autism is a complex spectrum that we still don’t fully understand, encompassing patients who require 24-hour care, to those who are successful and running large companies. For patients and families, there is a lack of human care providers in the space, so it’s costly and difficult to access care. Demand is huge, and supply is a bottleneck. This is why the potential of technology is so important.

BT: So what are you currently doing and what do you see on the horizon?

AV: We have a suite of tools, gamified software apps that run on Google Glass that help patients to improve things like emotional learning, self regulation, eye contact, time management, as well as other academic and educational skills. We rely on a combination of augmented reality, and artificial intelligence to power the coaching aspect of our technology. We hope the smart glasses will be used in the home, in the classroom, in a rehab center, in the boardroom. We can produce hardware and software that goes across all these different scenarios.

BT: What has the response been to these tools so far?

AV: Very good. Reactions have surpassed our expectation. I think some professionals in the field were skeptical that children (and adults) with special needs would benefit, because of the sensitivity some of these individuals may have with wearable devices or using new interfaces. Caregivers have also been surprised by the success. We’ve had lots of positive feedback from the autism community. Behavior in social settings is hugely important. Parents report that the technology is helping their children engage with the real world.

BT: Do parents and caregivers factor into your work a lot?

AV: Yes, they actually help identify outcomes that matter in real life, beyond what the industry wants to measure about autism. For example, autistic children wandering off is a problem many parents have reported. Wandering isn’t something that medicine or education currently addresses well. But hearing firsthand from caregivers gives us a real world outcome that hopefully our efforts can start to improve. Parents also have big picture, long term questions. They want to know “should I be saving for college, or building out the basement for my adult child?” There’s still so much to learn here.

BT: Let’s talk about SXSW a bit. What has your experience been?

AV: I attended last year because Brain Power was a finalist in four competitions, three for interactive innovation and also a finalist in the Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition. The community you mix with there is very refreshing. People from so many different backgrounds, bringing so many ideas to the table.

BT: Tell us about your panel, Mind the Machines: Neurotech and AI for Brain Health. What are the major issues and opportunities you hope to address?

AV: What’s evident is that technology will continue to play an increasing role in how we cognitively function. Today’s smart phone is like a backup brain. The form factor will change, perhaps from wearable to invisible, but it will continue to affect our brains.

Still, everyone’s brain and their specific challenges and goals are unique. High achievers want to cognitively enhance themselves, do better, work harder. On the other extreme, there are people struggling to find work, people in state hospitals dealing with mental health issues. So the needs are all over the map.

Engagement is another factor. Currently, many therapeutic apps in healthcare struggle because they are competing with apps that are created specifically to entertain and be highly engaging. How we can incorporate engagement and entertainment to achieve therapeutic goals needs to be addressed.

BT: What else will you likely check out at SXSW?

AV: I’ve earmarked quite a few already. I’m really interested in the Intelligent Future track. The AI for Good sessions look interesting. Here are some others:

Hacking your Health: Future or Fail One of my friends from IDEO is in that group, and someone from MGH as well. (Massachusetts General Hospital) Lots of broad experience in that panel.

Anthony Bossis’ The Return of Psychodelic Research in America I think this could be interesting — recreational drugs, health care, the future, interesting convergence.

Extreme Medicine: Quality Care Anywhere It looks at challenges in space, climbers on Everest, and other remote locations. Addresses challenges of practicing medicine in unique situations and settings.

Cloaks. Daggers and Dice: How the CIA Uses Games I’m sure nothing confidential will be released, but it should be interesting.

Heal Thyself! How Tech Improves Health and Self Care This panel will cover how to tackle fragmentation in health care and remove barriers to people taking care of themselves.

Impact Pediatric Health Sessions 10 different companies pitch and get grilled. These are always very interesting and entertaining.

Joel Selanikio, MD

With a medical background in pediatrics, and a global career that has included important work for the CDC, emergency response and disaster relief, Joel Selanikio’s latest venture is Magpi, a mobile data collection startup. He talked with us about Magpi, the changing face of healthcare and more.

BT: So what are some of the challenges you are tackling right now?

JS: I’ve got a few irons in the fire. I’m working on a book about the disruption and likely collapse of the health care system. I’m also working on another project looking at the effects of internet-based marketplaces on employment and political freedom in poorer countries. And then of course, Magpi, which is all about global data collection.

BT: How does Magpi connect to your medical background and focus on healthcare?

JS: In the US, healthcare (doctor/patient treatment) and public health (things like clean water systems, responses to epidemics, etc) are different entities. In poorer countries, most people don’t have access to doctors or healthcare, and depend on public health alone. Magpi is hugely important for collecting public health data in poor countries — although in many places of the world this is still done on paper, unfortunately.

Even though we have gone digital, there are still shortcomings here in the US. Since starting Magpi, and learning about different models for software development, I’ve been thinking about how our own US hospitals, who have funding available, still have terrible record systems. Considering all the things you can do on smartphones today, there’s no reason not to have efficient electronic solutions for health records.

Is this the basis for the “collapse” you referenced in healthcare?

JS: Not exactly. I used to theorize that the antiquated systems in healthcare would die out because third party companies would just end up doing it better. I now believe these systems will go away because the activities they document (meeting between doctor and patient) will change so dramatically.

Specifically, what technologies do you think will change the doctor/patient experience?

JS: Many tasks doctors perform are already automatable. Dermatology and radiology are two fields where AI and automation are ready for prime time. I also think more general care diagnoses will be taken out of the hands of doctors. For example, diagnosing an ear infection is pretty easy with the right visual aid.

So should doctors and med students be worried?

JS: I do think we are about to go through cataclysmic changes in healthcare. And there are indisputable examples where certain fields will need fewer doctors because of machines. But I don’t think clinicians need to panic. When the iPhone launched, Nokia engineers didn’t disappear. There will be opportunities to evolve. Think about how our parents used to view banking — you saw a banker, at the bank. That model is dead, but there are still plenty of folks working in that industry. Doctors won’t disappear, but their roles will evolve.

Are there any standout companies you see leading the automation charge?

JS: Apple and Google are investing in health, as are most of the big players. Good things will come, but I haven’t seen “the” revolutionary product yet. Someone is going to put things together in the right way. l think we’re in the calm before the storm.

Are you hopeful about the future?

JS: I am. What I see in the future is more health even if it means less healthcare. My career isn’t so tied to being a clinician, so I understand that my perspective may be different from other doctors. We are lucky in the US in that we are generally pretty healthy compared to other places, but our system is not great. I welcome change.

Daniel Kraft, MD
Chair for Medicine,
Singularity University
Exponential Medicine

Dr. Daniel Kraft spoke with us recently about the current and future state of healthcare, and offered us an honest assessment of how well technology is pushing our efforts forward. He’ll be the emcee at this year’s Impact Pediatric Health Sessions.

BT: What are the biggest challenges you see in the healthcare industry?

DK: I see the challenges as opportunities. We have a large aging population. We have technology that is more available, more democratized, cheaper to develop. I think we have opportunities to more effectively manage diseases like diabetes and certain cancers.

Of course, technologies bring new challenges as well. Mobile apps are helping change patient behavior, getting people to play a more active role in their health. But it brings up lots of systemic questions: If these apps are part of treatment, does the FDA need to regulate software? Do phones become medical devices? And when do insurance companies start paying for some of these tools? There’s a lot to sort out.

BT: Do you consider yourself a tech evangelist?

DK: Yes, but I’m also a skeptic. There’s a lot of hype to look past. We are several years into the wearable world, and not all of the promise has been realized. A step-tracking device is a good start, but these devices can and should become more tailored towards people’s specific health needs. For example, a Type 1 and Type 2 diabetic will have different tracking needs and we should be able to serve them accordingly.

There’s also more to be done in quantified health. That is, connecting data to your medical records, so all of your providers can access your data and coordinate your care more effectively.

BT: Are there institutions that you think are leading the charge?

DK: I think UCSF and Stanford have digital health programs that are showing value. The challenge is that incentives aren’t always aligned within our industry. Some organizations can innovate faster. Some have a “pay to play” approach, while other systems do better when they perform more procedures. So it varies.

Outside of our industry, a lot of consumer technology companies are playing a part in improving aspects of healthcare. Twitter has become a communication platform among clinicians and also with patients. Uber is delivering patients to appointments. 3D printing and VR assists surgeons in planning and preparing for surgery. Cross-fertilization between healthcare and other industries is a good thing.

BT: That sounds like a great segue to talk about SXSW.

DK: Yes, SXSW is a great opportunity to spark new relationships and collaboration that might not otherwise happen.

BT: You are the emcee of a pretty exciting competition this year.

DK: Yes, the Impact Pediatric Health Competition, which is hosted by the eight leading pediatric healthcare institutions. There are a lot of great people innovating in digital health and applying that lens to children. The finalists will pitch to a highly experienced judging panel. It’s exciting to hear all the novel ways healthcare challenges are being addressed.

BT: Weren’t Steve Case and Mark Cuban previous emcees for this?

DK: Yes. I have big shoes to fill.

BT: Break a leg! So how do you use SXSW to collaborate?

DK: Well, I typically try to connect people from different worlds and expose them to new pain points and unmet needs in healthcare. Create more awareness for things like premature birth, remote telehealth, transitioning from hospital to home. And also awareness for new technology. Machine learning and AI can look at more than just genomes. With big data, we can look at pictures of children’s faces and start to pick up cues to diagnose illnesses more quickly. There’s so much potential.

BT: Do you have any advice for newbies to SXSW?

DK: For folks NOT in healthcare or medicine, go check out the medical offerings. A great example is drone development. You wouldn’t expect to learn about drones at a medical session, but they are now being deployed to deliver medicine after disasters and in places where transportation infrastructure is poorly developed.

I would advise health care people to do the same. Go check out what’s happening in other tracks. Like gaming. Pokemon Go has been successful getting people to exercise. What else is out there?

Also, surrender to serendipity and surprise. Don’t over-program yourself, unstructured time can be terrific. Talk to people. Make connections. Enjoy yourself.

BT’s SXSW 2017 Health Picks

We’ve talked to the experts and studied the schedule — here’s our picks for health-related events at SXSW 2017. Downloadable here for on-the-go use.

Looking for something a little more intimate?
Let’s Talk! We’re bringing small groups of thought leaders together during SXSW to discuss challenges and opportunities at the intersection of healthcare and technology.