SXSW and the Digital Future of Health Care

By Matt Wood

The South By Southwest Interactive (SXSW) conference is best known as an annual gathering place for tech geeks. Each year thousands converge in Austin, Texas, to schmooze with the digerati and attend panel discussions on mobile computing, social networking, gaming and whatever else is buzzing on the Internet at the time.

logo_sxswi_2012The world of health care IT has been largely absent from these conversations in the past. This year, however, spurred by the impending changes from the Affordable Care Act, skyrocketing costs and general frustration at the complexity of the system, creative entrepreneurs set their sights on health care in a series of SXSW discussions that looked at the digital future of medicine.

For the first time, this year’s conference included a dedicated health-and-education track. One of the first panels, featuring speakers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the White House and NASA, addressed the role of prize competitions in solving science problems. Government agencies, along with nonprofit organizations like the X PRIZE Foundation, are sponsoring contests in which teams compete to solve complex scientific problems. This method of “crowdsourcing” allows these groups to reach beyond the usual circle of researchers to find novel solutions to problems and target ambitious goals without large R&D investments up-front. One example is the current X PRIZE competition that will award $10 million to the team that can develop a Star Trek-like “tricorder,” or mobile device that can monitor and diagnose health conditions.

Other panels fit more into the general entrepreneurial vibe of SXSW. One of the themes running through all of these discussions was the opportunity presented by the growing amount of data generated by electronic health care records, insurance claims and genetic sequencing. One such session, “The Future of Digital Health,” featured startups building tools to help people track medical expenses, access their medical records on the web and post health questions online where experts can provide verified answers.

Generally absent from these startup-focused panels was serious discussion of privacy and risk of data breaches. But some tried to tackle privacy concerns and legal issues that arise when health care collides with social media. One focused on the role of online review sites like Yelp as more patients search for information online to choose a physician. This presents a particular quandary for physicians because they can’t respond to reviews publicly to challenge unfair claims and misinformation.

While consumers usually think of Yelp as a place to find out about restaurants and hotels, Vince Sollitto, Yelp’s vice president for corporate communications and government affairs, said the website was originally created to provide reviews of physicians. He said that while 80 percent of reviews on Yelp are positive, a seemingly unfair review could be countered by a physician through a private message to other users. He also suggested that physicians use Yelp to post information about their practice proactively to counter potential misinformation, much like Ves Dimov, MD, an allergist at the Unviersity of Chicago Medicine, suggested in a recent post about filtering medical information online.


There were also multiple panels on social networking and its tricky role in health care. During each of these discussions observers could sense a palpable frustration at why consumers can communicate so easily with each other online but can’t do the same with doctors and insurers. One panel even began with a physician, a representative from Aetna and the founder of a social network for patients acting out a scene in which a patient tries to email his doctor a picture of a suspicious-looking mole. The scene played on the comedy of the situation, complete with a plugged-in patient expecting his physician to diagnose him on a cell phone while a mysterious insurer lurked behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, deciding which claims he would pay.

Another panel addressed how pharmaceutical companies can overcome the “creepiness factor” of reaching out to potential customers via social media. This was one of the more charged discussions, because while patients genuinely want to get information from these companies through social media, they also don’t want to feel that companies are capitalizing on their illness. As Alicia Staley, a cancer survivor and CEO of a cancer advocacy group told a representative from Sanofi-Aventis, “Your business strategy is my life.”

Some of the better examples of how online media can transform health care came through the creative use of video. In a panel on how hospitals can use technology to connect better with patients, Angelo Volandes, MD, an internist from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, talked about a study in which he used videos to facilitate end-of-life discussions with terminal cancer patients. By watching videos of how different types of care would look, they felt better able to make decisions about how much care they wanted to receive. He now works with a nonprofit organization that produces such videos for other types of end-of-life care.

Perhaps the most positive example of entrepreneurs using the Internet to change the way Americans think about health came from an unlikely source. Feel Rich is a website created by music producer Quincy Jones III (son of the legendary Quincy Jones Jr.) that uses videos to promote a healthy lifestyle to urban teenagers. But instead of shilling products or gimmicky workout routines, the videos feature famous rappers such as Paul Wall, Fat Joe, Slim Thug and NORE showing off their routines to lose weight, eat healthy and stay in shape.

Wall and his wife talked about growing up in homes where they never learned portion control or how to shop for healthy food. The videos show how kids can incorporate dance into exercise routines and work out without fancy equipment or gym memberships. The site connects kids with fitness trainers who encourage them on Twitter, and the company is working with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to promote its message.

If some of the entrepreneurs at SXSW seemed a little too focused on the moneymaking opportunities in health care, projects such as Feel Rich, Volandes’ video study and the various prize competitions showed the kind of positive changes possible when creative minds apply themselves to health and fitness. SXSW has long been an incubator for groundbreaking tech ideas. Maybe this is the year one of those ideas makes an impact on health care.

About Matt Wood (514 Articles)

Matt Wood is a senior science writer at the University of Chicago Medicine and nonfiction editor for Another Chicago Magazine.

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