Aspen Ideas FestivalWhen I embarked on my trip to Colorado for the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, I must admit I was in a bit of a social funk. The urgency of issues, such as Zika, gun violence, homelessness and early childhood education, were weighing heavily on me. Although I’m generally a very optimistic person, I was feeling like the number and severity of our mounting social issues were outpacing our ability to solve them. But, then I arrived in Aspen. Clean mountain air can do wonders for the psyche, and I suddenly felt like anything was possible. The Aspen Institute campus is a perfect social utopia: healthy food, LEED-certified buildings, open-air discussions and real conversation on problems facing the globe with an emphasis on root causes and sustainable solutions. I attended the Institute’s pre-conference, Spotlight Health, which has become the “premier creative forum on health.” Spotlight Health engages medical professionals, researchers, policymakers, social entrepreneurs and healthcare companies to bring innovative ideas to healthcare. The following are some key takeaways.

  • Culture of Health – Once again, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has set the bar for forward thinking on healthcare. In 2014, they launched their “Culture of Health” movement to address a “disjointed system of health care that does not systematically extend beyond the walls of medical offices to the places where people live, learn, work and play.” They have created four action areas to promote health, increase access and bring together disparate sectors and systems to improve well-being. In each of these areas, they’ve identified clear drivers and followed through with outcome measures. What excites me most is that RWJF pushed itself. Not only did they include traditional health measures and partners, they also dug deeper into issues of equity and access and reached further to engage other sectors, such as education, housing and environmental health. By moving “beyond the walls” of traditional healthcare and rethinking measures of success, we are homing in on healthy habits that lead to quality of life, well-being and longevity. While RWJF’s movement sets an ambitious agenda, it is inspiring countless communities to compete for the Foundation’s annual “Culture of Health” prize.
  • Precision Medicine – In 2015, President Obama launched his Precision Medicine Initiative – a research effort to improve how we treat disease and improve healthcare. The goal of the initiative is to develop the means to fully customize care for each individual patient. While researchers must gain access to more data to help bring this level of care to the public, a similar and exciting concept – person-centered care – holds promise to bend the healthcare curve (providing high-quality care at a lower cost to the consumer). A step up from patient-centered care, person-centered care brings together a team of experts and a care coordinator who focus on the whole person. It takes into account not only healthcare goals, but also a patient’s values and personal goals. Imagine a patient who is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. In our current system, an aggressive regime would be developed based on diagnosis only. In person-centered care, the care coordinator would talk with the patient about his goals – for example, wanting to live to see his daughter’s wedding in five months and being able to enjoy it as normally as possible. For this patient, the regime would take into account this life goal as well as his medical diagnosis.
  • Healthcare Breakthroughs – My inner geek was satisfied by the myriad solutions being developed by teams of healthcare professionals alongside engineers and IT professionals. From detecting disease with a cell phone to reconstructing a picture-perfect version of a limb for veterans using 3D printing, these advances are well underway. The breakthrough I’m the most excited and worried about, though, is the ability to tweak DNA to cure diseases, like cystic fibrosis, before birth using a new gene editing technology called CRISPR.
  • Mental Health – One of my favorite moments of the conference was when Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy shared his priority of emotional well-being. He got a rousing show of support from the audience of healthcare professionals. We are used to the surgeon general advocating for better physical health – for example, fighting tobacco or encouraging exercise – but Murthy is now promoting mental health. Emotional well-being became a rallying cry across the conference and was identified as a root cause behind many important issues. For example, researchers shared the importance of “finding purpose” as a means of preventing disease and improving quality of life. Psychologists discussed social and emotional learning and attachment as important tools for positive early childhood development. Physicians, including ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser, discussed the value of meditation for physical and emotional health.
  • Planet Health – While Zika was on everyone’s mind, the questions permeating the conference were on how and why we are experiencing increased public health epidemics and pandemics. Is it climate change? Is it globalization? Is it poor public health practices? And, how can we shape the environment to prevent or reduce these outbreaks as well as other healthcare issues, such as obesity? My takeaway from this discussion, which I wish was reported more, is that we have a strong public health system that is doing a great job of protecting and promoting health. But, even with a strong system, public health is only strong when individuals follow recommended practices. This will require more attention to public awareness and behavior change as well as environmental changes that make healthy habits the default for individuals.


Aspen started Spotlight Health a few years ago when they saw how rapidly healthcare was evolving.  I hope you are as uplifted as I was by these advances in healthcare. I finished Spotlight Health feeling inspired, energized and confident that we are moving in the right direction. If you have questions or comments on these healthcare trends, please share your insights.

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