Lessons From TEDMED 2012

TEDMED 2012 was a short but inspiring 4 days of learning. It started with an 8 hour flight from Heathrow, London to Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. My first impressions of the city (as a first time visitor) was that the people are generally warm and friendly. I did a lot of walking around with the typical touristy mindset for the first day or 2. As luck would have it, I had some peers who were in the same boat. I met up with some fellow scholarship awardees and we explored some of the less touristy parts of the city on the first night.

On the second day, I set off for TEDMED at the Kennedy Centre of Arts. As far as venues go, this art museum comes second to none: expansive, grand and all that glitters is not spared. I felt like a teeny weeny ant bouncing around in it’s majestic and spacious splendour and took some pictures (below).

The TEDMED breakfast was hosted in the social hub tent – aptly named because this space demanded social interaction. They didn’t call it the ‘Inspiration Bar’ for nothing. You literally strolled past one amazing live demonstration of health innovation after another. So without really planning to, I found myself gasping or whispering ‘awesome’ and heard my exclamations echoed by someone else who had either noticed the same thing or something else worth noting. And so the conversations flowed.

 TEDMED attracted 1,800 people across the globe from various health disciplines. Of this, only 200 of us had scholarships and the remainder paid $4950 for a seat at the health innovation show that truly trumps all others. With 1,800 health innovation enthusiasts, the conversations were rapid and often a mishmash of imagination, creativity, expertise and some light hearted banter. And this all happened before we had even seen the speakers talks which were just as thought provoking.

I wont go over everything that I learnt from TEDMED – partly because it is so vast that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. What I will do is summarize my key 3 lessons:

  1. Health challenges are nothing new. They are different in the 21st Century as non-communicable diseases become more prevalent and burdensome than infectious diseases. What contrains us more than anything in tackling these challenges is our own self imposed limitations.
  2. Imagination trumps knowledge every single time (as once said by Albert Einstein). Those who were showcasing their successful (and sometimes not so successful) forays into health innovation and mapping the future of health have dared to imagine a better future despite ridicule, disbelief and dismissal.
  3. Health can be fun. The talk by Dr Mark Hyman, a renowned advocate for community and peer led health, proved that facing serious health challenges does not mean that we can not have fun and celebrate successes. In fact, there is much proof to show that this reflective mode of working and adjusting harnesses better team working and creates momentum.

Nurturing the Rebel Within

I have been grappling with the many facets of equality and rebellion lately and thought I would share my observations:

When I was a kid growing up in Malawi, I was taught to always listen to my elders and obey authority. The lessons of what befell those who were disobedient were told as bedtime stories and graphically illustrated in political rhetoric. So its not surprising that I spent the first 12 years of my life as a very quiet, at times extremely shy and obedient child.

My schooling in South Africa at the age of 12 changed all that. I remember a turning point when my passive obedience was shattered: I was a new kid adjusting to being a foreign student in a country steeped in a rich and complex history. South Africa was on the brink of democracy with Nelson Mandela about to take up presidency after being released from 29 years on Robben Island. The air was thick with racial tension and uncertainty. On one of these eerily tense mornings, my new head teacher shoved a red circled timetable into my nervous sweaty palm and asked me why I had not been attending my Afrikaans language classes.

It took a while for me to work out a few thoughts in my head. I thought about the question he asked and wondered why there was no Zulu, Xhosa or Tswana or any of the other Bantu languages on the curriculum. I wondered what this meant in terms of valuing all races equally. As I stood there craning my neck to look at his towering figure, I lost my unquestioning obedience and respect for authority. And I liberally and quietly told him as much.

I got detention for the first time ever that day. And you know what? I enjoyed every single second of detention spent in that dusty school library. I enjoyed it so much that my walk from class to the library was always one of exaggerated pride and often accompanied with high fives from other students. I never did attend a single Afrikaans class that year. I instead spent my time mobilizing other students to do the same and sit out Afrikaans classes until Bantu languages like Zulu and Xhosa were on offer.

It wasn’t long before all manner of students were going home to tell their parents about this set of unusual play at the normally placid and peaceful school. Whilst the faculty figured out how to avoid embarrassing publicity and how best to change the curriculum whilst saving face, my classmates and I spent time reading books about people who had been moved to action by something that just felt wrong and unjust. People who had felt small and fearful but still challenged powerful and unjust authorities. We debated on different styles of defiance from the likes of the vocal radical Malcolm X to quiet and unassuming activists like Rosa Parks.  We read and discussed books like The Power of One and cheered on the characters who were united against Apartheid despite being from the disparate Black and White worlds of the then divided South Africa.We especially relished the part when the main character, Peekay proclaimed  ‘Little beat big when little smartFirst with the head, then with the heart.’

By the end of the semester, detention was no longer detention. It was a stimulating hub for debate and discussion, for students and teachers, on how power works and how to peacefully overcome inequality. Some might say that we were foolish to take on the very people who would determine whether we passed high school or not i.e. the faculty and school board.  And to some degree, I suppose we were. For a group of 13 year olds, there was a lot at stake, but doing nothing seemed to carry a bigger stake. You might be glad to hear that a happy class of 1997 graduated with little incident and that most of us had a passable level of Afrikaans and a Bantu language under our belt on graduation day.

Looking back now, I see that traces of this ability to challenge the status quo remain within all of us, but all too often it seems harder to activate as we get older. This led me to read up on organisational activists by leadership and innovation thought leader, Helen Bevan and Breaking Through Leader Yvonne Coghill.  I was both amused and enlightened to read and see illustrations of people who had started their careers with a determination to improve things for those who use their services/companies but soon lose this drive and instead opt into conforming. Sometimes at all cost.

Numerous literature suggests that there is a distinction between being a leader and a rebel. Whilst I agree that the two are by no means the same, I believe that a good leader stands up for what they believe in and moves people to act in order to rebalance power more fairly for the better good of all. However, anyone working in an organisation nowadays is faced with a conundrum: according to Harvard Business Review, most companies do not value heretics and instead reward conformity and obedience. The value of those who dare to question and challenge the status quo should never be underestimated. Even IBM’s successful resurrection as an internet leader is ascribed to a group of rebels who shook things up and ultimately brought the computer giant into the 21st Century.  So it seems to me that  the ability to rebel effectively is a skill that needs to be nurtured alongside the ability to move others to act and challenge the status quo. This can in turn be a mitigating force against a company’s stale ideas or social injustice.  A rebel has to use transformational leadership in equal measures to their defiance. Because a rebel who doesn’t move others towards collective action, ends up without followers and is nothing more than a rebel without a cause.


I woke up to a great surprise this morning. Sadly it wasn’t breakfast in bed but it came close second to delivering a similarly good feeling:  I woke up to a call informing me that I have been awarded a scholarship to attend TEDMED 2012 in Washington DC on 11-13 April. The TEDMED conference boasts an array of innovative thinkers and doers who have a shared passion for health and medicine.

This video gives a short summary of the purpose and scope of the conference:

My reasons for applying for the TEDMED scholarship are many but principally all to do with my keen interest in meeting people with a differing background and different views on the future of health.

Whilst I am looking forward to listening to the renowned speakers, I am even more so excited about talking to other delegates and finding out what brings them to TEDMED and how the conference might influence their lives and work. I will make sure I use periods at the conference when I am not enthralled to update the blog and tweet an update or 2.


The Future of Health: Health Apps

Smart devices are becoming a part of our everyday lives. I can’t even remember the last time I went a day without using my iPhone.  These devices unobtrusively connect us, collect information for us and help us to report what’s happening in our lives or what we find of interest.

Healthcare is seen by some as the last frontier when it comes to technology adoption. The take up of technology has tended to be slower in health care due to several factors which I will not go into here. What I really want to tell you about is an exciting and emerging shift in this take up.

A group of enthusiasts, early adopters, clinicians, developers and business minds have recently joined up to form The Healthcare App Network for Development and Innovation – HANDI. Yours truly has ofcourse joined up.

HANDI  is made up of people with a range of expertise who have one thing in common: we all believe that healthcare apps for people who use services, carers and healthcare professionals will be key to transforming and improving healthcare.

This shift towards embracing and developing health apps has a real potential to transform healthcare. In the near future, it will become standard to access our health needs through electronic devices such as smart phones. Instead of doing an annual health checkup (e.g. a cardiac risk assessment), near real-time health data access will be used to provide rolling assessments and alert us and a clinician of changes to our health risk based on biometrics assessment and monitoring (blood pressure, weight, sleep etc).

Predictive health analytics, health information intelligence and data visualisation will make spotting, reporting and addressing risks and abnormalities not only faster but more cost effective by reducing the need of big facilities like hospitals. While much work remains to be done to connect these devices and the data they generate in universal and interchangeable ways, there are standards evolving to ensure that the data will speak the same language, that the analytics, algorithms and data output are validated, and that the collective potential of these devices will paint a truly holistic picture of our health.

I dont know about you, but the vast possibilities of this technology certainly sends a tingle of excitement down my spine.

If you would like to know more about health apps and would like to be involved please visit the HANDI website or join us here.

The Importance of Balance

A balanced view somehow sounds boring doesn’t it? Balanced doesn’t sell. Sensational and extreme views are what grab people’s attention. The point to my musing is perhaps best demonstrated by this exchange:

I was speaking to a colleague the other day who bluntly told me how she avoids the news. The topic had come out after discovering that she would be going on holiday to a destination that’s been frequenting the news lately – and not for sun, sea and sand, but for an all together different reason of rising civil unrest and casualties.

This got me thinking about all the bad news that’s reported. Working in health, I am naturally more likely to notice all the flack and bad press that health organisations and health professionals receive. I am also more likely to think the health sector gets a raw deal. Don’t get me wrong, the imperfect systems that health services and people within them work in are prone to mistakes – small and big.

I do believe that the portrayal is unbalanced. I and a lot of people I work with are usually witnesses to remarkable displays of bravery, kindness and humanity. But you will be hardpressed to hear about any of these acts. When was the last time you read a news article about a successful operation that saved a life? A foiled infection that was stumped out by clinicians acting quickly and effectively? A life saved through a compassionate listening ear of a mental health professional?

These and many other acts happen every minute of every day if not more often but you wont ever see them heralded for the great works that they are. And some may be thinking at this point that people who do this work need not have these acts acknowledged: after all they do get paid for their jobs. Well I beg to differ. In my humble opinion, I think there needs to be a balance between broadcasting failures (which we see plenty of) and showcasing successes. This may very well propel those working in health services to thinking differently about their work and dare I say, even take pride in the work they do to look after and care for those who are ill.

To this end, I am doing my little bit and sharing a video of a group of people who have done just that: done what they can to help someone in need and shared their work publicly to encourage others.

Here is a video of some that work:

Mary Seacole Award 2011

OK I will admit it: until 4 years ago, I didn’t know who Mary Seacole was or what she did or indeed what she represents. How ridiculous is it that a woman who saved so many lives and significantly contributed to what we now collectively call nursing – is so poorly acknowledged.

Mary should be in the same league as other outstanding nurses like Florence Nightingale. Sadly 150 years ago, Mary’s non-white heritage meant that she was often met with resistance and sometimes downright hostility, when trying to help people who were in obvious need of any help offered. The hardships Mary experienced whilst trying to do what she loved i.e. nursing people back to health, still resonate today.

One hundred and fifty years later and I am sitting here reflecting on the role I play as a non-white nurse. I have not, by any stretch of imagination, encountered the same obstacles of my ancestors/predecessors as far racial prejudice. But there are still challenges of race to grapple with in my everyday work and more widely at a strategic and organisational level. These challenges require a multitude of exceptional and transformational leadership qualities, in order to transcend prejudices and work towards common goals that transcend race or any other characteristic.

It is well established that people from minority groups generally get short-changed when trying to access services to help them and their families. I and five others have recently (25th October) been awarded the Mary Seacole Award to undertake 6 separate projects to promote equality. This is a great honour for many reasons. Perhaps the most important reason being that this award puts me in a position to do my part in righting wrongs experienced by those who do not always have a voice. This is a very humbling position.

I will try to keep this blog updated over the coming year so as to share my journey as I embark on the Mary Seacole Award project – I hope you join me by posting your comments & views.


Capturing The Moment

For most of us, life is fast paced. We move fast, our children grow quick and our circumstances change quickly. The recent international events in New Zealand and Japan have given me cause to pause, take stock and recalculate.

These events have left a trail of suffering and incited a need for unity to help those affected. They have also brought a perspective on the rest of the worlds events…I hope. I say that ‘I hope’ because it seems that people (including yours faithful) reflect for a minute on how their problems are ‘not really that bad’ before getting back into a catastrophising mode. I wont go into any examples here because reducing someone’s subjective problem is the very thing I would like to challenge. But I would encourage us all to take a moment to pause and consider our lives in relation to those affected by recent events in Egypt, Libya, New Zealand and Japan. Just take a moment.


Its been a rather hectic winter season. Made more so disrupted by the recent snow that made everything come to a standstill in good old Blightey. The snow has brought doom in the form of car accidents, injury, cancelled holiday plans and lost productivity and economic woes at the worst time ever. But it also brought the best in people, neighbours who helped each other to shop and deliver the necessities to the most vulnerable. Workers who defied all odds to get into work to ensure that some of the service is left intact.

Regardless of the snow and dangerous icy conditions, work demands have continued to amass to a near enough frenzy. It never ceases to amaze me of how much fire fighting we do in health care. The best made plans just don’t seem to account for things going slightly awry. I wonder if any other industry would survive with this ‘head deeply in sand – hope for the best’ strategy…others like Hariet Sergeant seem to wonder too.

And make no mistake, this reflection is no disguise for some high-handed criticism of any international or national health system. Its simply a thought that we could perhaps plan and decide better to improve the service we provide to patients/service users and also cut costs of health care. I think all groups, including those in the health system, are vulnerable to groupthink and the delusion that we are already doing the best we can and therefore don’t have to consider alternatives.

I beg to differ. And I think more front line staff opting to question if we have missed some other alternative course of action besides austerity measures will lead to more innovative ideas. I welcome these, particulary in the coming four years when we have to save £20 billion in the UK health system alone.

So I guess the recent snow has taught me to plan for some hard times and try to protect the most vulnerable. But it has also taught me about the power of community. Its not just up to policy makers, its up to all who work and use the health care system to make the necessary changes.

IKEA “Hembakat är Bäst” Visually Stunning Baking Book

Now people who know me also know that I am a tad obsessed when it comes to IKEA. Yes I admit it. I have driven to IKEA at near enough midnight, walked around the isles for hours only to end up just buying a tin opener or something seemingly insignificant. But I see it as time well used. I have always loved the design concepts on show and used many of them as inspiration for my own living spaces.  And now I am equally loving the photography in IKEA‘s latest recipe bookHembakat är Bäst”.

Inside the book, individual ingredients take as much of the centre stage as the finished product. IKEA state that they were inspired by Japanese minimalism to present graphic still-life portraits on a warm and colourful stage.Continue reading “IKEA “Hembakat är Bäst” Visually Stunning Baking Book”