More than 10,000 health-tech disciples, healthcare providers and entrepreneurs gathered in the Las Vegas Convention Center Monday for the first full day of HLTH 2023. The massive, sprawling location is a testament to the ballooning growth of the conference, which started in 2018 with a roster of only about 3,500 attendees.
Vegas, the land of temporal distortion, is a fitting setting for a health conference that attracts everyone from singer Nick Jonas to former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb to president of Walgreens retail and chief customer officer Tracey Brown.
“Vegas was designed to make people lose sense of time and spend as much money in the casinos as possible,” one attendee said, referring to the windowless mazes and relentless blinking lights that mark the seedy interiors of the city.
Spend enough time inside HLTH and you’ll be just as disoriented with the endless elevator pitches and the sea of brands with “health” tacked onto the end of their names — and wonder if you’ll ever see the light of day again. Here are a few of Monday’s highlights.
TikTok influencers in the flesh
One of the genuinely nice things about events like HLTH is getting to meet your Zoom friends — and social media influencers you follow and write stories about — in person.
In a Monday morning panel hosted by LinkedIn, physician, TikTok influencer and Medtronic chief medical officer Austin Lee Chiang discussed how he tailors his videos about gastroenterology and other health topics to his 500,000+ followers.
I caught up with Chiang after his panel to get his thoughts on training HCPs to use social media in an academic fashion.
“Many of us [doctors] have actually seen people come into the hospital because of things that they heard online that aren’t accurate,” Chiang said. “If we’re not on there, then the entire conversation is dominated by these people who don’t have the right credentials.”
Right now, he added, social media education and training for HCPs is lacking: “Many of us have had to figure out how to do this through trial and error.”
A big part of that is “packaging the information in a way that is engaging and appealing,” Chiang continued. “Social media platforms want to retain people’s attention for as long as possible. So for the creator, how do we create content that serves that purpose? How can I maintain someone’s attention past the first few seconds?”
When asked whether he’ll be posting TikToks from HLTH, Chiang responded, “We’ll see. I’m going to try, though the schedule’s a little packed.” Later, Chiang joined fellow influencer Dr. Mike on an afternoon panel.
HLTH is the place for innovation. But as at least one panelist noted on Monday, “We can’t innovate our way” out of the healthcare system’s problems.
Only 8% of Americans receive preventive care, according to Sonny Goyal, chief strategy officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. “We’ve made some progress, but from a report card perspective, we’re in a pretty dismal spot,” he said during an afternoon panel.
Other speakers throughout the day, including Amazon’s chief medical officer Sunita Mishra and Walgreens’ Tracey Brown, touched on the issue from their own perspectives.
We get it. There’s a preventive healthcare problem in a country where the system is designed to treat illnesses rather than prevent them. But what’s the answer? It’s likely nobody will leave HLTH with a good plan.
An update on ARPA-H
Attendees also heard from public health officials including former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who appeared on a Monday afternoon panel with Verily chief medical officer Amy Abernethy.
Many attendees were probably wondering what ARPA-H, the newly established National Institute of Health arm that will fund research and “health breakthroughs,” will do with the $2.5 billion it has burning in its pocket. Or at least that’s what the moderator asked ARPA-H deputy director Susan Coller Monarez, who also sat on the panel.
“We’re going to go out and recruit innovative folks — and many of them may be in this room, feel free to raise your hand — who have a burning desire [to address] a problem, a challenge in organ transplantation or provider reimbursement or anything else to improve healthcare outcomes,” she responded. “It could be faster cures for cancer. We want to bring in those technical experts who are ready to champion breaking through on the status quo, and put those programs under our very agile and straightforward process.”
One of the first things visitors encounter upon arriving at HLTH is a line of massage chairs, situated near cubicles dubbed “Zen spots.” Throughout the day they were filled with seemingly stressed out entrepreneurs.
But no matter how many meditation rooms, free massages or “creative hours” health-tech startups offer their employees, burnout in the industry is ubiquitous — especially among founders. That was the focus of an afternoon panel on hustle culture and mental health.
Manatee CEO Damayanti Dipayana, Bamboo Health CEO Jay Desai, Headspace COO and CPO Karan Singh and WellSet founder and CEO Tegan Bukowski, among other health-tech entrepreneurs, opened up about their rather dark and twisted internal monologues during their founder journeys.
“The lows can be so low, the highs can be so high,” Dipayana said. “And sometimes you find yourself thinking, ‘I would rather fucking die than let this company fail.’” Yikes.
Singh agreed, adding, “You’re either on it, delivering and executing, or you’re not — and you’re weak, you’re vulnerable and you’re going to fail.”
Addressing some of those unhealthy thought mechanisms may come down to identifying “in what way you are broken that you became a founder,” Desai noted. “Like, maybe you were rejected by girls on dates a lot when you were young?”
“Whatever flavor of broken you are will set the tone for how you will [approach your work], and where the super-human motivation comes from,” he added. Addressing that comes down to “owning who you are.”
As the moderator quipped, it felt like we were all taking part in a group therapy session.
Food-as-medicine galore, OCD and Howie Mandel
There was no shortage of free food on the show floor, nor a lack of food-as-medicine stands. As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have started rolling out these programs, the idea appears to be catching on: The food-as-medicine pavilion housed ModifyHealth, InstacartHealth and FarmboxRx, all of which are championing home-delivered food programs.
Toward the end of the day, actor and comedian Howie Mandel hopped on stage with NOCD co-founder and CEO Stephen Smith to shed light on his own OCD and mental health struggle.
And finally: the best-dressed award goes to these guys at the Teletalk stand, and whatever their Renaissance-esque, historical garb is. It stood out amid the chaos.