There are few things more inspiring than seeing some of the greatest minds in the world tackling issues of life and death – so we were very lucky last month to share a room with doctors, scientists, technologists and big thinkers coming together to tackle the biggest challenges in healthcare at ‘WIREDHealth 2017’

Earnest Labs attended the annual event to dip our toe into a world where there is a lot to learn when it comes to innovative and creative problem solving.

Here’s what we learned and what we think it means for the world of marketing and advertising.

“We’re on a mission to survive, it’s everything we do”

Since the very beginning of time humans have been searching for the answers of how to extend the longevity of our lives and we are fortunate that we are now in a better position than ever to do that.

But how do you bring about real change in healthcare and how do you innovate to solve the biggest problems – from curing Cancer, to tackling Diabetes to eradicating epidemics?

Jessica Mega of Verily, the Google owned healthcare tech company, says there are three factors that contribute to real change in any industry:

i. Behavioural Interventions i.e. Strategies to help change people’s behaviour.

ii. Structural interventions i.e. Improving organisations or current processes within them.

iii. Technological interventions i.e. Innovating technology to help people live healthier and longer lives.

Over the course of the day, speakers from a variety of backgrounds spoke about solutions that fitted into these three areas and how each can be used by organisations to tackle change.

Part i. Behavioural Interventions

“You can have a massive influence with a tiny change”

Humanity has faced the challenge of a number of epidemics, but none quite like AIDS.

Each year, two million people are infected with HIV, and half of those who contract the disease die from it – a huge proportion of these people live in Africa.

This is a problem many, including Peter Pilot, an expert in the threat of epidemics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have been tackling for years.

They have, thanks to advances in medicine, made a huge difference. But one solution helping drive down new infections came from an unexpected source – a teen soap opera that aired on MTV Africa.

The soap, Shuga, was first commission in 2009 by MTV Africa in association with PEPFAR (The US President’s Emergency Fund for Aids Relief), the partnership for an HIV-Free Generation (HFG) and the Government of Kenya all as part of a multimedia campaign to spread the message about responsible sexual behaviour and tolerance (which in turn went on to be a huge hit in its own right).

At its heart, the programme promoted a behavioural change in a young generation in how they live. Since airing in South Africa, studies have shown that young people who watched the show were less likely to be infected with STDs (and interestingly much less likely to be violent towards their partner).

It’s clear from the example of Shuga that solutions to problems can come in the most leftfield forms and from the most unexpected places.

Something that Khaliya, a mental health strategist who wants to encourage governments and organisations to look at new ways to tackle ‘mental injury’, knows all about.

Speaking bravely at the event, Khalia told how, after being kidnapped, she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She turned to the usual routes when looking for help – receiving counselling and medicating with prescribed anti-depressants with little effect.

It was only when she researched the benefits of taking a controlled and prescribed amount of Magic Mushrooms, MDMA and Ketamine as a ‘cure’ for mental health issues that she realised there was another way to get help – and ultimately a solution she credits with saving her life.

However both the law and negative stigmas against these drugs means that in the UK this is not an option for people who suffer with mental health issues – an issue Kahliya is currently campaigning about. She seems to gaining traction as this recent segment on BBC news shows.

It’s a lesson that the solutions to problems may be hiding in places that, for whatever reason, are currently taboo or even illegal and may in fact need a larger societal or political behavioural change to ultimately make a difference (for a good example look at how OzHarvest changed the law in collecting food waste in Australia to give you hope that this can and does happen).

Of course, sometimes Behavioural Change initiatives are more formal – like the UK Governments Behavioural Insights Team, run by David Halpern who spoke about ‘Disrupting Healthcare’.

The Behavioural Insights Team, more popularly known as the ‘The Nudge Unit’, use behavioural change strategies to great effect when it comes to making change in the healthcare sector.

David discussed an example of how, by simply adding a message explaining how much a missed appointment costs the NHS into an appointment reminder to patients, an extra half a million appointments were attended over the course of the year. That extra line in the appointment reminders saves the NHS millions of pounds each year.

It’s clear the effects of these small changes can be significant. A similar example of a big difference from a small change was a letter sent to GPs who were giving out the most antibiotics to patients. The letter explained that 90% of their peers were giving far fewer prescriptions each year, a clever social norming behavioural nudge that led ultimately led to the NHS reducing drugs prescriptions to hit its target in one year – all from one written letter.

So what can marketers learn?

Small differences can make a big difference. Marketing teams are often obsessed with over-complicating strategies when it comes to problem solving – throwing money at every channel, creating endless reams of content but sometimes the answer to a business problem may be lying in one simple change. If you want any further proof take a look at the ‘$300 million dollar button’.

We need to start thinking more left-field. When it comes to marketing agencies and business we’re often guilty of living in a bubble – listening to each other on the ‘next big channel’ and where to put our budget. But the truth is creative solutions can come from anywhere and we have to expand our horizons if we’re looking for the right answer.

Don’t break the law, but help shape it. In a recent podcast interview, the musician Brian Eno talked about setting your sights on believing that anything is possible and overcoming the barriers that stand in the way. Often laws and societal views may be antiquated – if changing these is part of your businesses mission then so be it. As mentioned above, it’s worth reading into the history of the charity OzHarvest.

Part ii. Structural Interventions

“How do you democratise data driven medicine?”

 When it comes to structural interventions in healthcare the message was loud and clear on what needs to change – the openness, sharing and democratisation of data. This means that the healthcare industry needs to look at how doctors, hospitals and scientists can share and compile data to learn from each other and create a ‘collective intelligence pool’

Speaking on this topic, Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, said that open data and open IP is more important in the healthcare industry than in any others because data at a huge level gives insight for real connections that ensure scientists and doctors do not ‘play blind’.

The good news is that widespread data sharing is beginning to come into play in the healthcare sector. Sally Davies is leading a project to sequence to genomes of 100,000 patients, which she hopes will “improve our outcome as people, as a population, but most importantly as patients” as well as helping other companies like Sophia Genetics to democratise data driven medicine.

There’s another hot topic in the healthcare industry that needs tackling and requires a huge structural intervention – the question of who holds patient data.

This is a problem that anyone who has been to A&E can understand. Currently, patient data is held by hospitals and doctors and is stored disparately across different ‘departments’. As a result they have to talk to each other to get your patient records (which is often an extremely inefficient and tedious process).

Eren Bali from Carbon Health wants to make a simple but important structural intervention that flips this on its head. His new company, currently running in the US, puts patient data in the patients hands – giving them and any doctor, pharmacist or practitioner a full history of their records on their mobile phone.

Carbon Health is on the first companies looking at how to ‘Uberify’ parts of healthcare – with a mission to build the biggest mobile-first healthcare network in the world. Exciting stuff if they can pull it off.

So, what marketers can learn?

Businesses and agencies could thrive if they shared more. Where would the industry be in terms of innovation and progression if we shared more data (and not just email open rates), insights and creative thinking with each other that we were happy for others to use? It’s an idealistic question, but potentially an interesting one. If marketers are looking to progress we need less Dave Trott industry bashing, and more genuine collaboration and ‘brain pooling’.

Always be thinking about what the biggest X looks like. When starting up Carbon Health, Eren thought “If Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world, and Air bnb is the biggest hotel in the world, what would the biggest hospital in the world look like?” Businesses that are truly innovative need to completely re-think current models and think how they can go about building the biggest X from scratch.

Part iii. Technological interventions

“The convergence of technology & healthcare can lead to healthier lives”

While behavioural and structural interventions are important to problem solving in healthcare, technological advancement will be the backbone of change.

Jessica Mega, from Verily, says the key to this change will be successfully leveraging technologies that are already mainstream in other industries to use in healthcare.

Take for example diabetes – a condition that over 4 million people in the UK live with and one that needs monitoring and treating on a daily basis. In the past patients had to record glucose levels on daily basis, writing down daily glucose levels in a book – a ritual that is both prone to mistakes and a lack of data insight.

Verily are tackling this problem with cutting edge technology – using voice recognition devices like Amazons Alexa to detect a change in voice (a sign of deteration) and using glucose sensitive contact lens worn by patients to take readings directly from the eye and digitally record them to track patterns and spot any issues that can be directly flagged to doctors.

Again, a tech solution to a problem in healthcare that’s coming from somewhere completely unexpected.

Let’s pause and take one minute to stop and listen to some music. Here is Max Richter and a section of his recomposition of Vivaldis ‘Four Seasons’

Nice hey? Hopefully after that you’ll be left feeling more relaxed and more upbeat. The point is this – music has a great power to change mood and has even been proven to have similar effects with some drugs.

Marko Ahtisaari know this all too well and his company Sync Project is on a mission to discover how and why music can be used “as a precision medicine” to improve cognition after a stroke, help those with autism communicate, or to aid with the mobility of patients suffering from Parkinsons.

As well as educating the healthcare industry on the benefits of music as a precision medicine, Sync are developing their own technology to help people use music as an everyday remedy for mental health – including Unwind.ai that uses smartphones to match your breathing rate to deliver the right music to help you sleep (and fix your brain).

The technology solutions on show at Wired were all incredible, and something our industry should be envious of. But some technology on show on the day was completely mind-blowing and the most encouraging thing was that the majority of it was coming from young start-ups.

The start up that really stole the show was GiveVision, a company who are on a mission to help solve the issue of lost sight. Their product, SightPlus, is a pair of hands-free, easy-to-use goggles that enhance the wearer’s remaining vision. Stan Karpenko explained that “light is beamed into the eye of the visually impaired person, the camera captures the world, the software converts and ignites whatever the visually impaired person needs to see”. It really is incredible as this video from BBC Breakfast shows.

The more technology and big thinkers like this we have in the world, the better place it will be. Keep an eye on them.

So, what can marketers learn?

Technology can save us all. But we already knew that. I think the key thing businesses need to learn when it comes to creating new technology is to think of the customer first, and use technology to answer real problems. The marketing industry especially is in dire need of more technology that answers real problems and for agencies and businesses to invest into creating these.

Beg, steal and borrow. Rory Sutherland once said that the best thing anyone working in advertising can do while they are at a train station is pick up a random magazine and read it front to back to open their mind. In a similar vein he says he tries to attend as many events outside of the industry as possible. The point is marketers are often all too introverted, reading content from other marketers to develop. We need to be much better at looking to other industries and areas of society for inspiration so we can borrow ideas, technologies and innovations for our own good.

“Exploration is more about getting somewhere and putting down a flag – it’s the driving force behind innovation and the move to the greater good”

The healthcare industry is truly fascinating. Despite being faced with huge challenges on a number of scales the use of behavioural, structural and technological changes are helping move things forward at a rapid rate.

While it may not be a matter of life and death, marketers need to open our minds and find new ways to solve problems. Ultimately these solutions will be key to the survival of future businesses. We have a big task on our hands, but with an open mind and a dose of creative thinking there is nothing that can’t be done.

Keep exploring.