Prosthetics as sculpture, the maternal benefits of breast milk, Cuba’s radical approach to free medical education. These are just a few of the subjects tackled at TEDMED 2014: Unlocking Imagination, hosted last week simultaneously in San Francisco and Washington, DC, with a stage program directed by TED Fellow, physician, novelist and activist Nassim Assefi. On two stages over three days, 2,000 conference-goers and 80 speakers and performers gathered for an idea exchange on a vast range of subjects relevant to innovation in health and medicine.
A medical edition of the TED conference that was founded in 1995 (it’s now independently owned), we asked Assefi what made this TEDMED different from those in the past. “This was the most diverse TEDMED conference in its 19-year history,” she said. “We had slightly more women than men, more ethnic and international diversity than ever before, and a tremendous variety of fields. We didn’t point this out much during the program, but the impact of it did not go unnoticed.”
This year, it was truly a global event. “The conference was livestreamed to 146 countries free of charge, which felt like a democratizing coup,” Assefi added. “I believe being radically open is the wave of the future.”
In that spirit, for those of us not lucky enough to attend, the TED Blog hand-picked 11 of the most intriguing ideas presented on the TEDMED stage, and asked Assefi to tell us more about them. Find them below, grouped by theme. And for more speaker highlights, visit the TEDMED blog.
Reverberations in global health
1. Financial compensation for living kidney donors may be a reasonable way to handle the kidney shortage crisis. Iran is the only country in the world that has legalized the sale of kidneys from living donor volunteers. The government-endorsed program has been in existence for over 25 years and is implemented by non-profit health charities. Bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere went on an underground research mission to investigate, and her counterintuitive research reveals that the Iranian solution may be the least exploitative, most equitable policy given the current kidney shortage crisis.
2. Offering a free medical education could have big benefits for the world. Cuba-based American journalist Gail Reed describes a radical experiment of solidarity undertaken by the Cuban government — founding the largest medical school in the world that freely provides training to students from the Global South, educating them to be humanitarian, holistic doctors. That experiment in radical generosity is now paying off: there’s a disproportionately high number of Cuban doctors currently volunteering in the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and these new graduates are quickly becoming a significant force in combating the global physician shortage in low-income countries.
3. Creativity can come from something as difficult as “locked-in” syndrome. Photographer and TED Fellow Kitra Cahana is well known for documenting marginalized communities. (Watch her TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road.”) But when her beloved father, a rabbi, suffered a stroke resulting in “locked-in” syndrome — he could move only eyelids but had full cognitive functioning — she turned her camera inward to document his experience. Instead of pitying himself for his near total paralysis, Rabbi Cahana finds spiritual liberation and blinks out long, transcendent sermons to Kitra and her family, who steadfastly watch over him. The result of their three-year journey is a new visual art form that’s both eerie and beautiful, matching her father’s extraordinary spiritual resilience.
4. A photograph can be grown. Zachary Copfer was a microbiologist working for a pharmaceutical company who fell out of love with his profession and escaped to art school instead. In the process, he invented bacteriographs, a new photographic process where he literally grows photographs in living bacteria — and, paradoxically, reignited his passion for science.
5. A pink tutu can be a tool in cancer treatment. Another photographer, Bob Carey, turned to self-portraits as a form of self-soothing when his wife Linda was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. His favorite prop was a pink tutu, which cheered him from the bleakness of Linda’s diagnosis and made her laugh. When she shared his images with her fellow chemotherapy patients and saw the comfort they offered, The Tutu Project was born. Today, Bob continues to do ballerina self portraits all over the world, donating a portion of profits to help cancer patients cope with health care expenses. The hilarious and beautiful photos remind us that sometimes, laughter heals best.
6. While only 7% of US hospitals promote breast-feeding, it has big health effects for mothers. It’s well known that breastfeeding is beneficial to babies, but the research of internist and University of California, Davis, Professor Eleanor “Bimla” Schwarz reveals that breastfeeding matters to the health of mothers at least as much. It makes all kinds of sense — humans are mammals evolved to nurse their young, and lactation facilitates post-pregnancy recovery. But the medical world has ignored the maternal effects of breastfeeding. Schwarz takes an evidence-based perspective, concluding that women who don’t breastfeed are more likely to end up obese, with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. The tragedy? Only 7% of US hospitals adequately promote post-partum breastfeeding.
7. Evolutionary biologists and veterinarians can contribute to human healthcare. UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz was the echocardiography doctor on call when the Los Angeles Zoo phoned requesting help with a chimpanzee who’d suffered a stroke. That call made her realize that she’d never once considered the reverse kind of consultation, and she soon adopted a species-spanning view to the practice of medicine. These days, she integrates an evolutionary medicine approach to medical care, with such initiatives as the “Darwin on Rounds” program, in which evolutionary biologists accompany internal medicine physicians on rounds, and the Zoobiquity conference, which brings together physicians and veterinarians to solve common problems. The questions that drive her approach: 1) What do animal doctors know about this problem that I don’t know? 2) Could I do a better job if I started looking at my human patient as a human-animal?
8. Placebos have real effects. Harvard researcher Ted Kaptchuk originally studied Chinese medicine, but quickly became fascinated by the placebo effect — that elaborate ritual of words, symbols and transmitted hope that surrounds medical care. His groundbreaking research shows that placebos may actually be the most critical ingredient in healing. In studies that are anathema to medical convention, Kaptchuk demonstrates that placebos exhibit the same, quantifiable neurobiological effects of “real” pharmaceutical drugs and interventions.
9. Prosthetics don’t have to look like natural limbs — they can be works of art. Sophie de Oliveira Barata was crafting prosthetic limbs for amputee patients when it occurred to her that not all patients may want an exact replica of their lost extremity. Since then, she’s been sculpting custom-made, surreal, flamboyant limbs that express the individual personalities of her patients — including accessories such as crystals, jewels, lights, drawers, and speakers. These alternative limbs are their own kind of art form, inviting curiosity and conversation.
Modern-day medical sermons
10. Doctors can cause diseases, if they don’t listen carefully. Actor and playwright Elizabeth Kenny was a healthy 32-year-old woman who went to the doctor for a common gynecologic ailment. A year and a half later, she was in a locked level 5 psychiatric ward. Her two-year odyssey inside the United States’ healthcare system inspired her to write and perform a one-woman show, Sick, that challenges health providers to listen carefully to their patients before reflexively prescribing drugs that may actually cause iatrogenic illnesses.
11. The identity of “cancer survivor” isn’t for everyone. For writer, ordained minister, and hospital chaplain Debra Jarvis, humor is a powerful balm. She’s not afraid to be funny even when doing very serious work with the sick and dying, or relaying her own story of living through breast cancer. Jarvis challenges the long-term spiritual impact of self-identifying as a cancer survivor, despite all the forces pushing her to do so. Her conclusion: “Claim your experience. Don’t let it claim you.”
Stay tuned to the TEDMED website to watch these talks as they are posted. Several may also appear on TED.com as our talk of the day.