TEDMED 2011 is Over — What Now?


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Editor's note: This post was written by Kate Petty, writer and editor at Ashoka Changemakers.
 
Exoskeletons, prosthetic eyes, and an open-heart surgery tool controlled by an iPhone: Last week’s TEDMED 2011 conference delivered its trademark glimpse into the future of technology, medicine, and ideas.  
 
Some of those technologies were so futuristic they felt like science fiction. The exoskeleton, demonstrated by a paraplegic man who walked across the stage, can be pulled on and worn like pair of pants. The artificial eyes are prosthetic retinas that require no surgery and have already given some sight back to blind lab rats.
 
And the iPhone-controlled tool for open heart surgery? It’s a robotic lever for opening a patient’s chest cavity. The model currently used, best described as a “hand crank,” often causes collateral damage; the iPhone model operates smoothly to avoid tissue damage. (Dr. Chuck Pell, the tool’s designer, told ABC that Apple discourages the use of iPhones in surgical equipment; the final prototype will probably have a more precise control). 
 
These are just a few of the amazing advances in science and medicine on display last week. Reading coverage of the conference in the news and on Twitter (talks are available only to attendees until videos are posted online in the following months) is enough to get anyone excited about the possibilities. 

Yet amazing as they are, it’s debatable how much of an impact these technologies will have on the biggest problem in health care for the world’s nearly 7 billion people: a lack of access and affordability. 
 
The exoskeleton, even if it reaches the target price point of $30,000, is still out of reach for many people. And fighting the obesity crisis in the Western world to decrease the need for open-heart surgery in the first place may have a wider impact than a better prep tool. 
 
That’s not to say we don’t need these incredible advances. But we also need low-cost, wide-impact, systems-changing ideas. These are the kinds of solutions that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Ashoka’s Changemakers are uncovering with the Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders competition, which also opened last week.   
 
These kinds of solutions were presented at TEDMED 2011, too — a talk by Dan Buettner on his efforts to transform an entire community through community-wide intervention seems especially promising. 
 
But next year, there may be even more: one of the most exciting, systems-changing ideas to come out of TEDMED 2011 was TEDMED 2012. On Friday, as reported by MedGadget, TEDMED curator Jay Walker took the stage to explain a new direction for next year’s conference. 
 
TEDMED 2012 will take place at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; the proximity to the U.S. government is meant to increase the conference’s influence on the national direction of health care. Talks will be streamed live, for free, and available to everyone, and more people will be able to attend for free. 
 
To signal this change, TEDMED has unveiled a new “Great Challenges” program; the goal is to increase the world’s understanding of social and medical forces that interact to create some of the most widespread problems in the United States, such as lack of exercise and “bad science.” 
 
The 20 Great Challenges are all U.S.-based, but TED organizers hope that any positive changes made will have an impact all over the world. The world needs more of that kind of cross-border thinking — just as much as surgeons need iPhones.  
 
Inspired by TEDMED? Working on a low-cost gadget or breakthrough model that has the potential for better health care delivery everywhere? Enter your idea in the Innovations for Health competition.

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