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Can Hipsters Save Healthcare? Lessons from SxSW

“Go easy.”

The waiter raised his voice above the bluegrass band at the Salt Lick BBQ as he wished me a good time at Austin’s South by Southwest (SxSW) conference just a few days ago. An explosive marriage of music, film, and interactive (think tech/startups/social media) where strange bedfellows like Al Gore, Biz Stone, and Bruce Springsteen speak and perform before 30,000 fans wearing hipster glasses, personal WiFi hotspots, and ironic t-shirts.

Not your typical medical conference.

I sampled panels on digital health, social media and medicine, technology, and the arts. I made new friends from the WebMD family, and my Twitter feed became a human reality. Flying home from Austin to Portland, I found myself with three takeaways from South-by, and probably more to come.

1.      Location. Location. Location. In the past five years, we have experienced a surge of connectivity through Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest. But at this year’s SxSW, the buzz was all about Intro and Highlight — apps that use your social media profiles and leverage your smart phone’s GPS to introduce you to people around you before you have even met them. It’s too soon to say how this might impact healthcare, but I’m confident it will, especially as people are becoming more comfortable sharing their own health information (check out the new Facebook health feature or our WebMD communities if you don’t believe me). What would it be like if you knew that the person next to you on the bus had breast cancer too — and beat it? Or that the shopper in front of you in the grocery line is a neurologist searching for an Alzheimer’s cure and could share a research protocol with you that could change your mother’s life? This technology has only been available for weeks. Just wait.

2.      People respond to positives. One of my favorite sessions was a slightly less “medical” workshop led by actor Jeffrey Tambor from the show Arrested Development. He shared a directing “secret” used by all the greats from Kubrick to Scorsese: You get people to do their best by encouraging them. Doctors should pay attention. Our messaging as health care providers has become more punitive and less constructive. Patients can feel bullied sometimes, or made to feel guilty rather than inspired. We need to set our patients up to succeed without creating an inappropriate health ideal that sets them up to fail.

3.      Be careful. I capped off the conference by attending a session called Surviving Technology. A cautionary tale in our pressured momentum toward ultimate connectivity, the speaker argued that we need to recognize that we can’t sacrifice quantity of associations for quality. No matter how cool the app, how many “friends” we think we have, or how much data we will ultimately share, nothing will replace a hug, a handshake, or looking someone in the eye. Don’t get me wrong — I strongly believe in the power of tech to improve our health — but I’m also proud to support the idea that the purest form of care will always happen at the bedside. In our efforts to leverage technology, we can never forget that are patients are people, not profiles.

So as the barbecue settles in our collective stomachs, and Sixth Street takes a breather until next spring, I leave Austin with a fresh perspective on continuing medical education:

Be present.

Be nice.

And go easy.

How do you see the future of technology and healthcare? Leave your comments and join Dr. Beckerman on Twitter @jamesbeckerman to continue the conversation.

Photo: Photos.com

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