The Stanford Medicine X conference is part of a new generation of action-oriented gatherings—catalysts—that focus on the solutions of tomorrow in health. Here are my three takeaways from the September gathering.

Health is a big topic everywhere we turn today. Aging demographics, rising healthcare costs, and rapid technological innovation means there is a momentum in the Silicon Valley to overhaul the nearly $4 trillion healthcare sector in the US to achieve better health outcomes, more affordable and equitable access to care, and transferable solutions that address health standards globally.

At Stanford Medicine X, which took place September 5-7, all of these ideas were discussed, but three topics stood out for me. Surprisingly, they weren’t about technology, gadgets, and apps, but instead about seeing the big picture of health and healthcare.

1.    Not everybody lives in a digital world

It might seem strange to hear that a technology conference would point out this fact, but it’s one of the more crucial observations. The culture of innovation and technological progress in Silicon Valley displays an unwavering belief in technology.

With this comes an assumption that tomorrow’s solutions will solve today’s problems. And while we need tomorrow’s solutions, they should be designed for everybody, and useful today.

Exponentially growing markets like Digital Health are exciting because the possibilities are immense. Reduced barrier to entry and increased investment and user-friendliness means we will have medical care technology on our iPhones that can drastically improve the quality of our lives or even save a life.

Except it requires an iPhone. And power. And only 58% of American adults actually own a smartphone. Worldwide this number is still slightly less than 25%. So the chicken and egg question about whether technology mends or worsens the digital divide is more relevant than ever.

It was refreshing to see organizations such as the Center for Care Innovations address innovative health solutions for “no smartphone patients,” and presented side by side with technology startups explaining the newest breakthroughs in 3D printing for medical uses.

Thinking about non-digital patients in a digital world is also a question of health equity. In this country, healthcare spending per GDP is already through the roof, and healthcare is increasingly becoming a basic economic consideration for middle class families.

So while it is mind-blowing that we can now sequence the human genome for a fraction of the cost of just a few years ago, and that diabetes patients can monitor their disease in real-time through an app, these indubitable success stories also have an unwanted side effect:

Instead of creating solutions that address current problems, we design solutions for the gadgets we use.

This does not mean we should not make full use of the newest technology. We certainly should. But let’s not focus on the technology as an end. Let’s always keep the end user in mind when designing, engineering, regulating, and innovating.

Which leads me to my next take away.

2.    Listen to your patient

Seems like another non-starter but equally important to keep reminding ourselves of. A general euphoria around the newest often means healthcare technology solutions are geared around designing for the possibilities of these technologies, and that is not always useful (see above).

But technophilia isn’t the only culprit. Clinical trials by large pharmaceutical companies are designed to cater to FDA approval, rather than to the patients participating in said trials. In fact, patient engagement by pharmaceutical companies is a novelty.

Most of us don’t really know who makes the drugs we pick up with our prescriptions, and not much has been done in the way of changing this status quo. Conferences such as Stanford Medicine X want to change this by making patients an active protagonist in the debate around healthcare technology and medical innovation.

In an emotional roundtable with a Multiple Sclerosis patient and a Crohn’s Disease patient at the Medicine X conference, Joseph Kim (patient engagement advisor for the pharmaceuticals company Ely Lilly) admitted that his industry had previously treated patients as “raw materials in the supply chain” of discovering new medicines.

Today, patients are increasingly becoming involved and engaged in their own health and treatment process, rather than relegated to being a passive bystander.

The rather recent shift toward an acknowledgement of the patient as a customer denotes, in Kim’s view, a radical shift from “old pharma” to “new pharma,” and brings about a crucial outcome: Once you treat patients as customers, you will begin focusing on customer service. And that is really at the core of patient engagement.

Medicines and treatment plans that are designed for patients and imposed upon patients without much educational outreach and/or choice for alternative options don’t bring about good health outcomes and in the process waste a lot of resources. Smart healthcare understands that solutions need to be designed with the patient.

Smart healthcare might require incentives for health providers. Now, doctors are not incentivized to spend time with patients, necessarily, while they may be incentivized to readily prescribe drugs and order tests, the costs of which are not clear to patients until they get the bill.

3.    Engage all actors

Stanford Medicine X Executive Director Larry Chu explains that the X in the name is meant to “encourage thinking beyond numbers and trends” and “represents the infinite possibilities for current and future information technologies to improve health.”

Everyone in Silicon Valley is of course always talking about the future, but it is refreshing to experience a community and exchange of knowledge and concepts that focuses on creating and nurturing a fertile ground for innovation rather than imposing the next big thing.

In this sense I felt that Medicine X is not a demo day for existing solutions, but rather a platform to bring together the people, groups and ideas that will ultimately build the solutions of tomorrow.

Breaking up the silos seems to be the secret sauce.

There is an overarching understanding that when it comes to health, everyone needs to be a part of the solution. We need nothing short of a system overhaul.

Medicine X engages all actors, from medical research to practicing physicians, to pharma companies, technology firms in the healthcare space, wearables and digital health startups, nonprofit health organizations, regulators, and most importantly patients. Problem statements are debated from an academic, legal, economic, design, or even emotional standpoints.

How crucial is empathy in the care process? How can better user interfaces achieve better health outcomes? How do we reach ‘no smart phone patients’? These are the kinds of questions I heard at Stanford Medicine X, and that is refreshing.

Engaging all actors on a thematic level is one thing. But Dr. Chu and his team also reflected a lot on how to engage the participants before, during, and after the conference. Name badges with QR codes for online community discussions are just one example of how to harness the interdisciplinary diversity and innovation potential in that room.FeaturedMedx



At swissnex, we live and breathe interdisciplinarity because we believe that the best results come from the unlikeliest partnerships. By engaging all actors and stepping out of the box, Stanford Medicine X seems to be on fertile ground.