The human face of innovation

I was at Wired Health this week, taking advantage of the opportunity to listen to experts talking about the impact of new technologies as they apply to modern medicine. As you might expect, it was informative and inspirational in equal measure, and I have come away equipped with a deeper understanding of correlative imaging and citizen science (check out @EtchACell), the real role that AI is already playing in helping patients understand what their symptoms might mean, and the disease-modifying potential of microbes in the human gut.

But as a communicator, what really struck me was the humanity of what was being presented, because underneath all the sexy science and cutting edge technology, lay very personal experiences which had been the catalyst for innovation.   Bruce Levine (@BLLPHD), who kicked off the event, proved to be a powerful communicator, explaining CAR-T therapy in the most compelling and clear way, using everyday language to bring extraordinary science to life. Not just that, but I loved the way he thanked the patients who had participated in clinical trials for their contributions and courage, telling us their stories alongside the story of the way in which this new cancer therapy was developed and approved.

The Hon. Dorcas Makgato, Minister of Health and Wellness, Government of Botswana (@DorcasMakgato) spoke without notes and held the room spellbound – not just by the content of her speech and the refreshing clarity of approach she’s taking, to drive change through investment that must deliver robust economic returns, but also by the force of her personality. She was utterly human and totally authentic.

One of the projects her department has invested in is the work being done by Peek Vision (@PeekTeam).  Founder Andrew Bastawrous told us how the experience of being labelled lazy at school when in fact all he needed was a pair of spectacles had inspired him first, to qualify as an eye surgeon and second, to go out and deliver eye-care in sub-saharan Africa. A few statistics that really caught me – did you know that worldwide, 1 in 3 people can’t see just because they can’t get spectacles? And, one of the key factors that led to his developing a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tool that’s revolutionised the diagnosis of reversible blindness in remote, hard to reach rural areas, was the realisation that 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, where only 50% have access to clean running water.

And Tania Boler (@taniabeeb) of Elvie (@helloelvie) spoke eloquently about now being a special moment in the evolution of the femtech industry when three factors are coming together to drive change: first, the growing empowerment and activation of women through the #metoo and #timesup movements – we’re no longer content with the status quo and are prepared to fight for what we deserve; second, the revolution in technology itself; and third, the paradigm shift currently taking place whereby individuals are now taking much more responsibility for their own health. And that’s quite apart from the incredible success she’s having using biofeedback technology to help women support their pelvic floor.

I can’t do justice to what was a very full day at Wired Health, and there are plenty of people who’ve blogged in greater detail about the content, but for me the unifying thread was not the technology, but the personal stories behind every breakthrough. Every single one of those entrepreneurs and pioneers had a story to tell about their own experience, or the experiences of someone they loved, and that’s what drove them. It’s easy to get lost in all the whizz-bang of AI, VR, spatial genomics (have a look at humancellatlas.org) and forget the humanity behind extraordinary innovation, but this year Wired Health and its speakers did a really good job of reminding us. Can’t wait for next year.

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