The second full day at HLTH 2023 in Las Vegas was as jam-packed with speakers and panels spanning AI, habitual health, gun violence, climate change, sleep science and longevity innovation as the day before — even as the conference halls and sessions were, mercifully, a little less crowded.

For newcomers to HLTH, the second day typically brings with it more familiarity, as the sheer enormity of the conference layout becomes less intimidating. But sensory overload is still expected, in large part because visitors pass by literally thousands of people at the event, many of them having made questionable fashion choices. Meanwhile, some of the big themes and topics of discussion start to get repetitive. “I’m so sick of hearing about AI,” one attendee told me.

Still, there were plenty of moments that stood out. Here are Tuesday’s highlights.

HLTH has a diversity problem

Is it really so surprising? I’m glad I got the chance to speak with Ysabel Duron, founder and executive director of the Latino Cancer Institute, who brings a unique perspective in the form of her journalism background  and her experience as a cancer survivor and patient advocate. She likes to cut through the PR pitches and “get to the truth,” she told me.

After a couple days of wading through a sea of startups claiming they’ll solve any number of obstinate healthcare woes, Duron voiced a question that had similarly occurred to me: “Are these companies really in it to reach patient populations that need solutions, or are they just in it for the bottom line?”

Duron said she has visited with startups and asked pointed questions about their health equity commitments. By doing so, she hoped to determine how to differentiate between the people in it for the right reasons and those who are paying such issues mere lip service. Her advice to all the startups and entrepreneurs? Go outside the conference walls and talk to people from underrepresented communities.

The HLTH conference, after all, doesn’t exactly reflect the people of Las Vegas, Duron pointed out: About 34% of the city population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “Out of the some 350 speakers at HLTH, there are only about five who are Latino,” Duron said. “And I’m one of them.” Not the best look.

Gun violence as a public health issue

While many sessions at HLTH are designed to be lighthearted and optimistic, one panel served as a reality check.

Look around HLTH and you’ll stumble upon 10 different cancer detection test companies. But preventive solutions to gun violence as a public health crisis are nowhere to be found, according to Chethan Sathya, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at New York-based Northwell Health.

Chethan Sathya and Dr. Leana Wen
Chethan Sathya and Dr. Leana Wen.

That’s partially due to the lack of research in the field, even as gun assault rates have doubled among children in four major cities in recent years.

“It’s very much like a new disease, and we have a lot of work to do to figure out what a successful public health approach would be,” Sathya said. “There’s a lot of cancer prevention and diabetes prevention, but not much gun violence prevention.”

He urged audience members to commit to solutions, whether in the form of developing AI for weapon detection or in other ways. “We need all your help to gather data for innovative solutions,” he stressed.

“I’ve been disappointed in that after every mass shooting, I have friends in tech who reach out to ask what they can do,” Sathya added later. “But then it falls to the wayside.” 

GLP-1s and drama

So now we know obesity drugs work, and that almost everyone wants to use them (thanks, Kim Kardashian!). We also think we know that they might reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke as well.

But as evidenced by an afternoon panel featuring Ro chief medical officer Melynda Barnes, Virta Health chief people officer Lucia Guillory and Omada Health president Wei-Li Shao, the GLP-1s are starting to cause some drama.

Some major points of tension have emerged. Are they forever drugs? Will most people gain back the weight when they stop taking the drugs? Given that they cost $900 per month per employee and employer drug spending could increase by 50% because of them, should employers cover them at all?

That last question was the main focus of the panel, among the day’s most exciting because it nearly resulted in a full-blown fight between panelists (and yes, when you’ve been sitting through 10 uneventful panels a day, a little drama is welcome).

The primary participants included Andreas Mang, senior managing director of private equity firm Blackstone. Mang argued that the pressure on companies will be enormous in the coming years if they decide to cover GLP-1s for employees.

“The economic reality is that companies have to make hard decisions, and they can’t ignore the fact that 70% of people who start these meds don’t stay on them for more than a year,” Mang noted. “Companies will be put out of business. They literally won’t be able to do anything other than pay for GLP-1s.”

But Barnes immediately shot back from the patient’s perspective: “If you’re a patient looking at this panel, the point of view is of employers looking at books,” she said. “No one is asking what patients are saying. I am not advocating that everyone writes a prescription for GLP-1s, but it should be a conversation between a physician and a patient, and not a conversation in a boardroom about whether this medication should be covered.”

Amid the back-and-forth swiping, Shao brought up a possible solution — and a new way for employers to look at covering GLP-1s: He suggested that companies should help their people keep the weight off after they get off the drug. Barnes ended the panel by stressing the need to “check our biases about obesity,” which was met with several approving nods from the audience.

Puppy portraits

Finally, here’s the truly essential HLTH content you’ve been waiting for: Puppy portraits.

These therapy dogs have been working shifts the last two days in a “puppy park” located in the middle of the conference floor. The goal, according to one of the dog handlers: To keep attendees happy and “give them a little break” from the ceaseless panels. Thus we’re pleased to introduce you to Archie, Daisy Doo, Ginger, and Odie. They may have single-handedly kept some of us afloat amid the madness.