SXSW: Tech empathy, data skepticism, and a Black Eyed Pea fuel health track's surge

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Nothing about the continued expansion of the South By Southwest health track can't be seen as a good thing for the industry. Increased health-tech visibility at high-profile events generates momentum, luring potential partners into the space. Similarly, every “holy moly there are a lot of smart people here” dispatch piques the interest of health-tech holdouts, who might finally board the bandwagon and/or see what all the hubbub is about at SXSW 2019.


Indeed, SXSW's health offerings are no longer a mere curio for attendees in town for the culinary and pop-cultural pizzazz. The only downside of health's increased popularity at SXSW? It's become a giant logistical nuisance to cover it all. With apologies to the sessions and speakers I missed, then, here are a few awards.


Best health-track panel: “Empowering People to Own Their Health Data,” featuring former FDA commissioner Dr. Robert Califf, Duke Clinical Research Institute's self-described “patient-empowerment warrior” Bray Patrick-Lake, Medgadget's Scott Jung, and Verily's Scarlet Shore. This one clicked for any number of reasons, but none more compelling than the rare notes of skepticism it sounded.


We enlightened health consumers/thinkers/whatevers have a hard time wrapping our heads around the fact that our accumulation of data and endeavoring to stay informed about all parts of our personal well-being place us very much in the minority. Even as Shore (a product manager and evangelist for Verily's Project Baseline, an ambitious attempt to develop a “baseline” of good health using the data of 10,000 volunteers) and Jung (a PB participant and med-tech journalist) discussed the enthusiasm around the project, Califf was brutally honest about the challenges that the proponents of widespread sharing of health data face.


“We can have meetings at South By Southwest and talk about how great this all is, but it's not reaching the people who are suffering right now,” he said. Patrick-Lake acknowledged the obvious as well: “Good, solid, rigorous research takes time.” Smart, fascinating stuff.


Most welcome trend: The use of technology to foster empathy. This came through most overtly during the trio of “Connect to End Cancer” sessions, which touched on the treatment advances fueled by smarter and more thoughtful use of technology. But similar sentiments were expressed during any number of sessions, among them “How Digital Health Succeeds - And Fails” (which addressed benchmarks for measuring digital-health initiatives), “EntrepreNURSE: Hacking, Making & Disrupting Health” (which shone a welcome light on the recent efforts by nurses, who more than anyone else are on the frontline of patient interaction, to use their experience to create better, more empathetic experiences), and “Using Digital Tools to Tackle Chronic Disease” (which explored the tech-enabled journey of almost preternaturally poised high school senior/Type 1 diabetes patient Brian Meads from newly diagnosed eight-year-old to digital-health adherent).


Techno-empathy, or whatever we're choosing to call it nowadays, isn't a new topic. But HCPs and technologists aren't merely paying it lip service; they have elevated its prominence within the context of patient/user experience. They're putting the “care” back into “healthcare” (pun richly, obnoxiously intended).


Most welcome trend, runner-up: People are pissed off. The tone of every health-track presentation was respectful. Mercifully, panelists didn't over-reference the current political climate (save for a sharp-elbowed barb by Califf about how he left the FDA “just as barbarians came out of the gates”) and its deleterious effect on healthcare in America.


That said, health panelists and conference attendees suggested that it was time to take matters into their own hands - à la “if the government won't do anything, we will.” Speculation ran wild about how Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, Walmart, Blackstone and the like might go about attempting to transform the health ecosystem. A panel featuring reps from these companies could've packed one of the jumbo ballrooms.


Most invisible: Big pharma has a presence here (says the guy who spent three days intrusively squinting at attendee ID badges), but you wouldn't know it from the composition of the health panels. For every big-pharma panelist there were at least three technologists. This was an opportunity missed.


Most worrying statistic, part 1: More than 50% of digital health startups fail 20 months after launch. Per Accenture, via Datica VP of marketing Kris Gösser.


Best advocate: Jimmy “Taboo” Gomez of Black Eyed Peas. Not only did he speak eloquently about his battle with cancer, but he lingered outside the conference room for some time after his session ended, listening to the stories of fellow patients and survivors and offering advice from his own experience. What a lovely, gracious guy (not to mention a natural for some kind of more formal spokesperson role, whether for a brand or an initiative like the Biden one). This almost made me regret my firm belief that the Black Eyed Peas' music has contributed to the decline in America's global standing. Almost.


Most irrelevant: Every consumer brand. I know that brands “need” to be at SXSW, less that they lose their corporate-coolness bona fides, but I don't have the slightest idea how any of them can reasonably expect to cut through the clutter. There were tens of “takeovers” of off-site restaurants and venues; the only unbranded pieces of real estate in downtown Austin were the toilet stalls. I feel morally indebted to note that I'm writing this in a press room sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University, which represents the modern-day apogee of totally unforced pairing of sponsor and audience/activity.


Best audience-rallying quote: “If you are not for insuring everyone, you are not for ending cancer.” - Greg Simon, the Biden Cancer Initiative.


Worst conversation: This is an 82-way tie among convos with health marketer types who insist on cramming the phrase “add value” into every discussion about a product or service. To wit, here was an actual discussion I had with a marketer of (I think?) a health data cloud platform doohickey.

LD: So, how does it work?

Marketer person: Well, you know, it adds value to all the data from all the various user-generated streams.

LD: What value does it add?

Marketer person: I beg your pardon?

LD: You said it adds value. What's the specific value it adds?

Marketer person (glancing in both directions for a fire alarm to pull): Uh, it adds value by pulling together all the data, and adding value. That's the value it adds.

LD: Good talk.


Biggest disappointment: “When Health Care Goes High-Tech.” A main-stage discussion between Michael Dell and Clay Johnston, head of the Dell Medical School at UT Austin, promised an abundance of discourse about the intersection of health and technology delivered by two guys who know a little about both. Instead, Dell didn't go much deeper than “I think healthcare is an area that's ripe for innovation.”


The session's only true insights came from Johnston, who discussed how his facility is attempting to revolutionize both physician education (by deemphasizing rote memorization) and the treatment of any number of conditions (joint replacement surgeries among them). It wasn't enough. Meanwhile, if you cite statistics unfavorably comparing the patient experience with the experience at the Texas DMV, it's probably best not to do so glibly.


Most worrying statistic, part 2: On the black market, credit card numbers sell for $35. Patient records sell for $260. That's also per Datica's Gösser. A Digital Journal story from February puts the price for a patient record even higher, at $380.


Best city: Austin. Best people, best music, best everything. True fact: the Texas state flower is brisket.


Best (Eventual) Supporting Actors and Actresses: You, me, mom, Lindy-Lou, Paw-Paw, and that weird guy at Starbucks - you know, the one with the hair. If there were a single thread that ran through every health-related presentation at SXSW, it was that big pharma, researchers, hacktivitsts, and wonks can only do so much to cure American healthcare. The rest of us are gonna have to contribute as well.


Califf drew a perfect analogy, relating a conversation with a friend who worked in the realm of CME. “What he told me was, ‘If you only deliver CME to the doctors who go to meetings, you're not really helping anybody, because they're going to read everything anyway.'” Just as Califf's pal sees a need to reach physicians who aren't as proactive about CME, so too, he suggested, should health-tech disciples attempt to prompt people unlike them to take a more active interest in their health.


Noting the blue state/red state disparity in life expectancy and pretty much every other fundamental health measurement, Califf said, “We need to get out there in the rest of the country.” Duke's Patrick-Lake took the sentiment a step further: “I'd encourage every single person to enroll in a study. We have an obligation to one another.”


Here's the link to Verily's Project Baseline. Here's another to a database of clinical research opportunities. Let's do this, people.

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