What I learned at HealthFoo 2012

This post is patterned on a similar post penned by Susannah Fox ( @SusannahFox ) after the first HealthFoo in 2011. She lays out the origin of the event and the meaning of its name so I won’t repeat that here. I’m going to be honest and say that I was intrigued when I read the post then. A year later when I had the chance to actually attend, in Cambridge, MA, I was still intrigued.

And here’s what I learned.

All the photographs below are creative commons licensed, you can access the collection on Flickr at this link.

We all have “imposter syndrome”

Don’t know what that means? There’s an extreme definition on Wikipedia that you can reference. In the medical profession though, it’s a commonly discussed concept. Am I good enough to be here? Do I deserve the trust I’ve been given? Do I know all that I need to know for this case?

I walked in knowing a few people and maybe a little uncomfortable, and eventually discussed having imposter syndrome with several colleagues. The way to deal with imposter syndrome is to recognize that you have it, that everyone around you has it, and use it to provide humility and open leadership. No one deserves to be in that room, and everyone deserves to be in that room. Whoever are there are the right people. This event is not about a moment in time, I think it is about learning to learn, and preparing for the next experience, to include more people who will embrace imposter syndrome with you.

Hot topics for me: Less Tech, more people, more Food, more Quantified Self (“Prevention is the new HIT’)

In comparing my experience to Susannah’s last year, it is interesting that my experience was one of a shift away from health information technology and into prevention, social determinants, and behavior change.  This could be my selective attention based on what interests me.

This year brought experts in food systems, where I learned about an industry outside of health care that is struggling with transparency. There is no GTFS standard for food like there is for transit.  The food databases in our mobile apps can be incomplete or inaccurate, which has downstream effects on our behavior. The manufacturing processes of food, which affects the sustainability of our cities and rural areas, are also opaque, which disproportionately impacts people across the social spectrum. Note the USDA publication: “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price.”

I also received some insight into my obsession, I mean interest in, the data locked away in grocery club card databases. As I blogged previously (See: “R.I.P. Safeway FoodFlex“) , Safeway had previously made this information transparent, and then made it opaque again in 2011 (why, Safeway?). There is a company, Gojee, that has established a connection to a grocery’s consumer’s database for the purpose of providing information about recipes. Would they like to work with the health system?

I had a great conversation with Alan Greene ( @DrGreene ) and others about the first 33 months of an infant’s life, and what it can mean for obesity prevention. What a pregnant woman eats in her last 2 trimester is what her baby eats, and it has a profound impact on what they see as tasty throughout their lives. I’m bringing my intrigue to the Obesity Prevention Code-a-Thon on June 2-3, 2012 that’s part of DC Health Data and Innovation Week ( @DCHealthWeek )

This was very timely in the era of “Weight of the Nation,” which aired just last week.

Quantified Self  ( @QuantifiedSelf ) was also a topic of discussion. At this point, I am learning just what quantified self is – how does it fit with population health, communities, and systems of behavior change. It is more than just having a device, more than just tracking for health. Alex Carmichael ( @accarmichael ) exposed me to the three prime questions:

  1. What did you do?
  2. How did you do it?
  3. What did you learn?

That really changes things for me. Instead of wondering about which device has what data that connects to what care experience, it makes me think that our care system could just ask people/patients/members to ask these questions and provide the answer, that’s it.

On the topic of people, the role of pathologists came up from two different perspectives: first, from Regina Holiday, who is concerned about the rate of autopsies in the United States, and the profession’s ability to stay competent in this procedure. Second, from Mark Boguski, MD, who cleverly titled his topic “The fallacy of $1000 genome sequencing in cancer,” and described another view of the pathology specialty, which is one working to adapt to the future of tumor treatment by DNA.

Going all in, hacking with The Regina, Cambridge

One thing I liked about the atmosphere was that there was the open agenda which was timed, and then a flow into the evening. There was an immersive component to the experience – you wanted to hang around and meet one more person, and maybe write a blog post or paint late into the night. There is something to having a 24/7 environment available.

On the last evening there were a series of Ignite presentations. Regina Holliday ( @ReginaHolliday ) and I had talked about signing up for one before we went, but we decided that we wouldn’t have time to put one together. Well, as the first presentation of the night started, we decided to go ahead and create one on the spot. I thought the patient story was a great cap on the meeting, and brought me new resolve about what and who we are doing things for.

I have to make one note about Cambridge. I haven’t been there in a long time, but as I walk through the town, it feels like nothing less than the re-engineering of the human species is happening in the labs and tech hubs of this place.

In conclusion..

As I review the above, I realize the feeling I took away is very similar to Susannah’s from last year, we are learning to learn differently, which means in environments of greater diversity, humility, and embracing our vulnerabilities. There are many opportunities in cities all across the country to interact with new people in meet ups, health camps, code-a-thons. Many of these events don’t last  as long as this one, so I hope this post provides ideas about the possibilities that can come from these alternate learning environments, and what you can bring to them. It’s worth it.

Thanks a ton to Tim O’Reilly and the team at O’Reilly Media, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Microsoft for being courageous, open hosts.


Wicked sign in process ! However great post and thanks for the info. Diid not know anything about #healthfoo2012.  I would like to link to your article here on my own blog at http://healthtrain.blogspot.com  and G+ +Digital Health Space. I am in the process of setting up a G+ Medical Health Index Page. Would you like to be listed? Gary

 @glevin1 Hi Gary,
The content here is creative commons licensed so you are welcome to link to it, thanks for taking the effort to comment!

Thanks for taking the time to share your insights and experiences at HealthFoo.
I’ve been immersed in teaching [computer science courses] this quarter and paying very little attention lately to anything not directly to the courses … including the kinds of healthcare and patient empowerment challenges, activities and events that you, @ReginaHolliday and @SusannahFox often share. It’s nice to catch up a little about what’s happening along a few frontiers.
In addition to your specific observations about the health-related aspects, I found the more general observation that you (and, earlier, Susannah) shared to be particularly resonant in the context of education, i.e., the need to shift to “learning to learn differently, which means in environments of greater diversity, humility, and embracing our vulnerabilities”. Not sure yet how to implement this in my own sphere of influence, but I think you are spot on.
I also wanted to thank you for modeling vulnerability in sharing your personal experience with – and “treatment” of – imposter syndrome. I’ve seen or read several inspiring women share their experiences with imposter syndrome openly – @BreneBrown and Maria Klawe (President of Harvey Mudd College) come to mind – but have encountered very few men willing to acknowledge any vulnerability (especially imposter syndrome). In my current role as a college teacher, I have an opportunity to wrestle with imposter syndrome on a daily basis. I find it very reassuring to learn that I am not so alone in this.

 @gumption  @ReginaHolliday  @SusannahFox  @BreneBrown Joe, Thanks for the awesome comment, and I have a feeling that if you’re thinking about it, you’re modeling it too, for the benefit of your students. I remember one of my residency faculty members used to say in very critical medical situations, “does anyone here have any other ideas?” That’s the kind of humility that saves lives. I appreciate the reinforcement by a colleague in another profession, so thank you,

Ted Eytan, MD