My review of the first Scripps Health Digital Medicine conference

In this post, I'm going to be sharing my thoughts regarding the first Scripps Health Digital Medicine event hosted by Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) that I attended a few months ago. What was excellent, and still rare to see in many Digital Health events across the globe is that both days started with patients sharing their stories on stage, and not just a few minutes, but 30 minutes for each patient story. These were really powerful reminders of why we were gathered there. 

I wasn't enamored by the first two talks on Day 1. I still remain skeptical of Deepak Chopra's work, even after listening to his talk on the 'Future of Wellbeing'. I found Paul DePodesta's talk on 'Moneyball for Healthcare' to be quite dry and didn't engage with me at all. Thankfully, Anna McCollisterSlip's talk followed on patient centered healthcare which was a highlight and I'm looking forward to the future launch of Vitalcrowd, which aims to crowdsource the design of clinical trials and involve patients. 

Talking to other attendees in the breaks got me thinking, where is everyone? Whilst the speakers were from different parts of the USA, almost every attendee I spoke to was local to the San Diego area (Note: I did meet 3 people who had travelled from Europe) This was the first event of its kind by Dr Eric Topol and Dr Steve Steinhubl by STSI, and when registering, I imagined people would be attending from around the world. Especially given how influential Topol's work has become in recent years, I find it surprising that nobody from the UK's NHS was there. After all, UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, cited Dr Topol's book, 'The patient will see you now' in his annual HSJ lecture in October 2015.

One of the most energetic talks during the entire event was delivered by Dr Henry Wei, and really hit home for me because he actually talked about the challenges of evidence generation in Digital Health, and he shared Aetna's experience from piloting health apps. 

Adam Pellegrini, from Walgreens, shared that they had seen improved outcomes as a result of patients using wearable devices, in terms of medication adherence and the results were unexpected. They seem to have big plans for incorporating digital technologies in their offerings, so it will be worth keeping an eye on what they do next. 

What was interesting was that the second half of Day 1 had 5 talks on the theme of 'What the patient wants and needs.' Walter de Brouwer from Scanadu, made some bold predictions including that within 2-3 years there will be a lab in every bathroom. His talks are always very engaging, as he is definitely focused on the patient first. He also made a point that consumers will have agents like Siri, Artificial Intelligence like Watson, and so what will happen to doctors? 

All this talk about transforming medicine, and it made me aware of my own health. Sadly, this event seemed to suffer from the same issues I have observed at similar events around the world. To be fair, someone must have listened, because on Day 2, fruit was available in every break. 

John Sculley, the former CEO of Pepsi & Apple, pointed out that the American Medical Association says that 70% of procedures could be done remotely, in his talk, on 'Telehealth Care to Just Health Care.' I do think more people need to consider virtual doctor visits, and whether in some areas, it becomes the default method for interacting with a healthcare provider. I was intrigued to hear Babak Parviz speak, (who invented Google Glass) but has moved to Amazon, where they are exploring new spaces including healthcare. I wonder, what if our experience of healthcare were as efficient as our experience of using Amazon? 

Since the event was located in California, which is considered by many to be the most progressive and forward thinking state in the USA, I was surprised to see find that the panel discussion at the end of Day 1 was absent of women. On top of that, out of 11 formal talks on Day 1, just 2 were delivered by women. 

What I found particularly valuable was the chance to network and spend time with people who are normally really difficult to get hold of. After the talks had finished on Day 1, I remember having a wonderful extended conversation with Professor Rosalind Picard, who is at the MIT Media Lab, and I got the chance to have a look at the wearable technology she is currently developing. One of the benefits of having a relatively small event in a compact venue. I went to the mHealth Summit in Washington, DC a few years ago, and felt like I was in a small town, since 4,500 attendees were there. 

Whilst I'm on the topic of the venue, the location, which was the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla is the best setting for a conference that I've ever attended. Having flown 11 hours to attend, and then driving 2 hours from Los Angeles in rush hour, I suspect the ocean views and laid back atmosphere had an impact in reducing the effects of my jet lag during the 2 days. 

 This was the view of the Pacific Ocean from the venue when we had breaks

This was the view of the Pacific Ocean from the venue when we had breaks

Day 2 opened strongly, with D.A Wallach speaking about the need to create a company that is the Apple of healthcare, a one stop shop for consumers. Dr Jess Mega from Google Life Sciences [now known as Verily] gave a insightful talk on the technology that Google is pursuing in healthcare, including the contact lens that aims to monitor glucose levels in people living with Diabetes. Their vision she shared on the 'machine intelligent' landscape in healthcare has convinced me to pay much more attention to technology trends such as machine learning. Professor Picard's talk on what wristband sensors can tell us about brain health also gave tremendous insights into the future, asking how could we use sensors to predict seizures in those living with Epilepsy. She also asked us to work together to use tech to save lives. One of the metrics I use to judge if a speaker has made the audience think is how many queue up to ask questions once the talks are over. 

Virtual Reality is tipped to be an area of increasing interest in 2016 with the launch of new consumer headsets. We might think it's brand new technology but Brenda Wiederhold from the Virtual Reality Medical Center, highlighted how the evaluation of virtual reality as a form of therapy has been around for some time. 

I enjoyed listening to Donna Spruijt-Metz from the USC mHealth Collaboatory share some of her research in Obesity, and made me think about the 'just-in-time' interventions we may be receiving in the future.

Dr Zubin Damania from Turntable Health, delivered a very entertaining talk which tackled a very serious topic about reforming primary care, including his vision for the future, where instead of evidence enslaved medicine, we have evidence informed medicine. He also gave the audience a preview of his latest video, EHR State of Mind, which the audience loved so much, he received a standing ovation. As I too stood up, smiling and clapping, it hit me how humour can be utilised to get an entire group of people thinking hard about something that bothers many in healthcare today. 

Wendy Nilsen, from the National Science Foundation, spoke about Precision Medicine as a National Initiative: The Role of mHealth. I've admired her efforts for many years, and it was great to get to hear her speak in person. 

In the final session on Day 2, the theme was 'Individualizing care via Big Data', which is a growing area of interest right now. This was the first time I'd seen a talk about the newly formed Watson Health, and Robert Merkel, certainly shared a bold vision for what they hope to use their technology for. 
 

It was unfortunate that at the end of Day 2, the panel discussion was devoid of women, again. 

After the event formally concluded at the end of Day 2, there was a long queue of people patiently waiting to speak to Merkel about Watson Health. I reckon that given their strengths in big data and their bold visions for future, competition between interlopers such as Watson Health and Google Life Sciences may lead to a paradigm shift in the application of data in our everyday life to optimise our health. 

It was my first time hearing in person about MD2K, which aims to lay the scientific foundations for turning the wealth of mobile sensor data available through new and rapidly evolving wearable sensors into reliable and actionable health information, and contribute to the vision of predictive, preventive, personalized, participatory, and precision (P5) medicine.  However, the speaker, Santosh Kumar, spoke far too fast, and I had trouble keeping up with the pace of the presentation. It was enlightening to learn about their mHealth Training Institute (applications open Jan 15th 2016)

There was also a small marquee outside of the auditorium where breakfast, lunch & breaks took place, which also had a very small selection of exhibitors. That was a good decision. Sometimes, there can be so many exhibitors that you use most of your breaks visiting booths, which makes the day quite hectic. 

I left the event feeling somewhat confused. The cost of registration was $345, which is less than the price of some of the latest smartwatches, so a veritable bargain, in my opinion. STSI did a great job bringing some brilliant speakers together in one place. However, they need to work out exactly what this event is about in order for it to justify a place in the increasingly crowded space of Digital Health events. It has the potential to be a brilliant event, but because it didn't deliver content that consistently met the objectives stated in the brochure, it's a major failing in my eyes. I expressed this view in my earlier post. Neither the low cost of admission or the beautiful location can offset that. The brochure opened with this statement under course description, "A thoughtful exploration of the clinical evidence necessary to drive the widespread uptake of mobile health solutions will be the focus of the first Scripps Health Digital Medicine conference", and whilst there were elements during some of the talks with this explicit focus, by and large it felt like existing events I've been to which discuss in general terms, the future of emerging technologies that are hoping to transform medicine.

The brochure also stated it would be an interactive conference. Sorry chaps, but a conventional format where in each session, the audience sits and passively receives information from 3 talks over 90 minutes followed by a panel discussion, and Q&A time with the audience doesn't count as interactive for me. Fewer talks, more audience participation/practical workshops would be a step towards being able to describe it as interactive. The brochure also listed, "After attending this activity, participants should be able to: Identify global needs for mobile health and potential technologies to address those needs." Sadly, this didn't actually translate into reality, since the speakers including the patients were all from the US, and most of the examples cited in talks were in reference to the American healthcare system or research initiatives set in the US. .

I'm not sure that having a theme of mHealth is the best thing for the future. We assume that smartphones are cutting edge and with us for some time. However, a recent survey by Ericsson Consumer Labs found that 50% of smartphone users believe that smartphones will disappear within 5 years [Note: they surveyed urban smartphone users in 13 major cities around the world]. 

To conclude, I see that STSI are now showing online that the event will repeat in 2016. I also note that the overview and conference objectives for 2016 are identical to 2015. I sincerely hope that they will make changes to the structure, content and format of the next event. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things are likely to be two buzzwords that are thrown around in 2016 from many claiming to have solutions that might impact the lives of many people around the globe. "There is a clear need for a forum to present, discuss and debate clinical trial evidence and how to best obtain it in order to accelerate change" states this conference brochure. Moving forwards, I believe this need will become even more acute, let's hope this annual event can become the forum that the everyone eager to change healthcare is awaiting.

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties to any of the individuals or organizations mentioned in this post]

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