2/05/2022 | BlogPost

SXSW 2022's In-Person Comeback: A Dive Into the Superpower of Sound, Improved Hospital Design, Diminished Reality and more

Kristin Milburn | CMO & MD, Publications, Events & Digital Health Ecosystem


It was the first time back in person at SXSW post pandemic, and things were a bit more subdued than in years past, but the energy and optimism for the future was palpable.

And while it did feel like a transition year, there were many great sessions to learn from: in particular, the discussions around innovations in healthcare went beyond the more expected digital health topics and brought along some interesting discoveries worth sharing.

Here we take you through an insightful overview of some of the SXSW sessions, focused on digital health and healthcare transformation together with some food for thought around art, design and what bacon has to do with data.

Sound is an untapped superpower

Howard Rose, Head of Healthcare at Spatial moderated the panel entitled "Redefining Health Experiences with Sound" along with Walter Werzowa, Founder of HealthTunes, Dr. Hank Capps, Chief Information and Digital Health Officer at Wellstar Hospital System, and Fran Ayalasomayajula, founder of RTL Innovation.

The speakers had an engaging discussion on the impact of sound design in health care. Rose kicked off the session by positing a question around whether sound is an untapped superpower. It's not often that sound is even considered in healthcare, but groundbreaking work is being done at several Wellstar hospitals in Georgia to provide healing spaces for the frontline healthcare workers. As Dr. Capps describes, "How can we give back to those who have given so much?" (during the pandemic)?

The answer is a collaboration between Wellstar, Spatial and HealthTunes to create a space where healthcare workers can go to escape, relieve tension, relax during breaks and recharge. These "Wellness Rooms" can be personalized with sound experiences personalized to each user to enhance the calming effects.

In thinking about the future of sound in healthcare, Walter Werzowa described a world where creativity and science converge and that every song might have a label, similar to a food label, "what's the health value of this piece of music"? Download HealthTunes to begin to see how music can provide healing across multiple conditions like stress, anxiety and pain.

There’s No Place Like Home: Ensuring Best Access to Care Solutions at Home

One of the trends we've been tracking is the movement of care from the hospital to the home. Studies show that 90% of adults 65 and older want to live in their homes as long as possible. As the baby boomer generation ages, there is an urgent need for solutions that support their desire for aging in place.

Deborah DiSanzo, President at Best Buy Health, described how her company is investing in providing access to these technologies as the consumerization of the healthcare continues. She shared a personal story of her husband experiencing a stroke and while laying in the hospital bed the next day, the attending neurologist described how to track his blood pressure with his blood pressure cuff, how to upload it to Apple Health and then importing it into his Epic electronic health record. While that all sounded like a smart thing to do, it was more than a little overwhelming even for someone like herself that is well versed in technology. But it highlighted a need to bridge the gap from what's possible technically to what consumers are ready to adopt and the support they'll need to do it right.

Best Buy acquired a company called Current Health which provides a leading care-at-home technology platform that brings together remote patient monitoring, telehealth and patient engagement into a single solution. And with their Geek Squad and social work teams on hand they can also help support those customers with these solutions at home. (I can also personally attest to being the IT support for these kinds of solutions at my parent’s home every time I visit!) Best Buy is just one example of a retail company recognizing the demand for support and creating access to these solutions.

Hon Pak from Samsung described the ability to connect data from different technologies and appliances in the home and how patterns could be determined to give a sense for how those occupants are doing, perhaps alerting other family members when a danger arises. We may not think the number of times the refrigerator door is opened or when the coffee maker is turned on could be a digital biomarker, but if you have an elderly person living at home alone it could well point to a signal of potential distress.

Promising digital biomarkers help find cognitive decline before it's too late

The current pathway to uncover Alzheimers typically starts with some sort of observable sign, a trip to the GP who does some screening tests, then a referral to a neurologist that does a cognitive assessment including some kind of scales testing autonomy and daily living activities. To confirm a suspected diagnosis the tests would move to finding biological evidence, this includes brain scans, spinal taps/brain stem puncture - invasive procedures.

The problem is all of this is happening way too late. By this time the disease has likely progressed, and it is too late for any effective intervention. Speech biomarkers offer promise in this area. There are many different aspects of speech that can be assessed, grammatical complexity, word choices, intonation etc and it is far less invasive, low-tech, inexpensive to administer and well received by patients. And most importantly it can be done much earlier in our life span when modifiable risk factors like lifestyle, sleep or exercise can have an impact.

J&J is leveraging these biomarkers as part of the screening process for clinical trial recruitment. Eventually, these kinds of speech biomarkers will be tracked as just another biomarker like we track blood pressure or cholesterol levels to give a better overall sense of cognitive well-being. Interesting privacy questions were also raised around whether or not these speech algorithms could be incorporated into smart speakers or Zoom so that your company can track your cognitive health or during phone calls with health insurance companies. Assuming they aren't being leveraged to hurt consumers, the diagnostic insights they can potentially provide is looking very promising.

Designers are missing from the table at hospitals

Noah Waxman, CEO and founder of Cactus a Design firm believes designers are missing from the table at hospitals. If we think about it, "design" is not typically even considered in those spaces. From a design standpoint he described us being at the MS Dos phase of medicine, highly intermediated, risk averse and reactive. Patients are given a very narrow view of their own data. How might we create a sense of awe or wonder in a hospital setting?

Noah laid out a set of what he called provocations, ideas that might happen if you put designers in charge of healthcare:

1) Make doctors better storytellers: we all know good stories can move us, inspire us, make us see things differently. If doctors did that well, perhaps we'd better adopt their advice and recommendations.
2) Get doctors into a flow state: build tech around docs to support them and provide collaboration for more complex situations.
3) Level the playing field: doctors are constrained by dogma and rules and patients feel helpless in their journey, how can we try to bridge that gap.
4) Build better feedback loops: doctors often try a scattershot approach, testing lots of things to see what works with patients left in limbo. How can we test and learn in the context of healthcare and keep patients aware along the way?
5) Make goosebumps and tears (the good kind), doctors are incentivized not to screw up and patients want to "feel". How can design help to bridge that gap?

The Patent cliff model vs building a 'Mechanism of Adherence'

A lively discussion on "Ushering in a New Class of DTx" moderated by Georgia Mitsi (GM, Mental Health and VR, Biogen Digital Health) along with Eddie Martucci (CEO, Akili), Nancy Isenberg (Medical Director, Center for Healthy Aging/Neurology at Swedish Neuroscience Institute) and Brent Vaughn (CEO, Cognito Therapeutics). In addition to discussing specific challenges and opportunities related to developing solutions in the neurology space there were interesting points of view shared related to the differences inherent between traditional pharmaceutical companies and up-and-coming DTx manufacturers.

The first being that DTx companies operate more like software/tech companies, which means they are constantly evolving, reshaping their company and its products to best suit the needs of patients and the market overall. Their approach is agile and focused on a user centered design approach. Pharma is more fixed, set in the way they do business, thinking about where things could be 5+ years out and driven by the patent cliff model (the point at which there will be sharp decline in revenues opening up competition to generic manufacturers). Tech companies are thinking on a much shorter time horizon, constantly iterating on how to improve the product and leveraging network effects to fuel their growth.

In pharma land we've always heard about the "mechanism of action" of a drug. How about "mechanism of adherence" or thinking about how best to drive engagement with your product? Adherence has always been a big challenge for pharmaceutical companies, getting the script written is one thing. Ensuring that patients fill the script and then take it as prescribed is another, and other than refill data, pharma has no idea what patients are doing at that point unless they happen to report an adverse event. DTx on the other hand not only knows exactly what patients are doing, but how often they are doing it, how many times they engage with the solution, and can even further personalize the experience based on how they are doing. DTx is creating a complete paradigm shift from the way pharma companies have traditionally approached the market and should force a rethink on how they go to market and particularly how they could better leverage digital to support their growth in the future.

Your P&L is Showing: Why good design matters

Health insurance companies aren't typically at the top of my list when thinking about companies that are driven by user centered design principles, but that may begin to start changing. The session, "Revolutionizing Healthcare: Fusing Data Analytics & Human Centered Design" brought together Dan Makoski and Steve Griffiths from Optum, Abishek Singh from the Everest Group and was moderated by Paige Minemyer from Fierce Biotech.

The leaders in the payer space discussed how good design could help make understanding and accessing your health benefits easier and more seamless. Design at its core should be human centered, it's about helping people and is only successful when people have better experiences with your product. Dan explained that some people think of "design" as "art". "Art" is a more self-centered endeavor, while design is an act of service, it's about creating delightful user experiences for your product. We all know there is tons of data being created daily from the numerous digital channels we interact with. The question is how can we take that data and make it useful? Years ago at SXSW I heard an analogy that likened data to bacon, and that in its raw form it's useless and unappealing, but once you crisp it up (make it useful, by deriving insights) it becomes something people enjoy and look forward to consuming.

The question to ask is "what's the story behind the data?" Anthropologists believe that the more users set their own goals, the more likely they are to stick to them. What's the human goal and what's the data we need in order to allow for those goals? Behavioral health and design are looking into how to use feedback loops to improve wellbeing, take the data available and enhance the experience. Makoski described that what happens at most large companies that are looking to implement changes that will improve the business impact to their unit will do so at the detriment to their users or customers, with a singular focus on improving the bottom line. When design decisions are made in this way, the response the design team gives is "your P&L is showing" - a metaphorical way of saying you're not basing your decision on user needs but rather only improving the bottomline. Good design ensures that satisfying user needs is prioritized over near term profits. The opposite would likely cause user disengagement and a larger hit to the bottom line negatively in the long run. At the end of the day, companies that value good design outperform their competitors. Just ask Apple.

Democracy and the Digital Generation: Shaping our Technological Future

With the backdrop of the war in Ukraine raging, leaders from both sides of the pond weighed in on where things stand from a regulatory perspective in the US and EU. When discussing the need for tighter regulations for the internet overall, Stanford professor Mehran Sahami invoked a metaphor used in his recently published book called "System Error; Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot". It likened the need for regulations around the internet to the infrastructure of safety that was needed when the car was invented and suddenly there was a lot of traffic, decisions like which side of the road should we drive on needed to be made. The panel argued that we need to have those same sort of guardrails in place for the internet to keep it safe. The overarching consensus from the panel was that it was too serious to allow tech companies to be the ones to ensure the safety and privacy of citizens and that the EU has been taking the lead in regulation. While the US has typically supported the unencumbered growth of start-ups with a mantra of "growth at all costs", Europe has acted more cautiously to protect the privacy of their citizens.

There was also discussion about how 60% of Gen Z gets their news from influencers instead of news outlets, the power is shifting. And as evidenced on January 6th in the US, the platforms that can act as a megaphone for enabling the distribution of disinformation, can also be quickly shut down when the threat of further violence continues. Some on the panel argued that Brexit happened because of a campaign of disinformation and that consequences for society can be disastrous if not kept in check, and as is evidenced in Russia where propaganda is masked as news and citizens are made unaware of what's really happening in Ukraine.

What is re-perception and why does it matter?

One of the most popular talks every year at SXSW is Amy Webb's Emerging Tech Trend Report. As the CEO of the Future Today Institute, Amy helps to identify trends and consider what the future might look like based on a strategic foresight practice. She kicked off her talk explaining what "re-perception" is and why it matters.

The act of "re-perception" awakens you to the possibility that a different future may lie ahead from your current expectations. It helps you to recognize that staying curious in the present moment rather than maintaining absolute certainty of what is based on previous frameworks, can help open you up to alternate possibilities. It reminded me of Carol Dwek's work identifying the value of the growth mindset vs. the fixed mindset. A growth mindset is one that is curious, embracing of challenges and finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others. A fixed mindset is static with a deterministic view of the world. Digital transformation is happening all around us, and if we stay static with a fixed point of view and don't remain curious and open to seeing alternate possibilities, we will have trouble adapting in a world that is constantly evolving at a greater and greater pace. As Amy put it, "The new normal is unfolding for those who know how to re-perceive signals in the present".

As far as trends identified, "diminished reality" or DR will soon allow consumers to visually and audibly cancel whatever and whomever they wish, in real time. An interesting counter point to the growing number of VR/AR solutions, although one might argue DR is actually a mental health solution. Homes are becoming "sentient", meaning that the automated systems sense and then adjust temperature, sound, light and other functions to support the family. With the growing number of sensors and advanced AI, it's not hard to imagine how the sentient home could also support remote health diagnostics and adjust accordingly. Add in telemedicine and remote patient monitoring and it's not hard to see how the "hospital at home" trend will continue to accelerate.

Here's to staying curious and reperceiving signals in the present moment while envisioning a brighter and healthier future... powered by digital.

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Kristin Milburn

A 20+ year veteran of consulting and digital marketing, Kristin Milburn’s experience has had a consistent focus on healthcare and technology and the intersection of the two. She is a strategic and innovative thinker, who has held leadership roles in strategy/planning and client engagement at various digital firms with numerous Fortune 100 pharmaceutical and technology clients.
Kristin is now the Managing Director of Healthware Labs. Healthware Labs is our innovation consultancy helping our clients navigate and innovate within the everchanging world of digital health, remote patient monitoring, telemedicine, digital therapeutics and beyond.