Dispatches from SXSW 2024:
Keep Austin Weird, Keep Healthcare Human

Every year in March, the city known for keeping it weird turns it up a notch with the multi-audience conferences and festival known to locals as “South By.” But before the film and music festivals turn the energy “up to 11” in Austin, the interactive conference offers a platform for companies to showcase new technologies and discuss the impact of applied innovation. The Health & MedTech track, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, offered an opportunity for executives to weigh in on what’s next for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

While everyone was talking about the transformative power of data and AI, the healthcare track repeatedly brought the conversation back to what matters most: patients. Patients were the lens through which all innovation was filtered, and rightly so. Here are the key themes I heard throughout the SXSW 2024 healthcare sessions:

The Era of Health Data Advocacy

Healthcare data is growing at an annual rate of 36 percent, so why aren’t we seeing more efficiencies from the use of health data? Former CVS CMO Jan Berger joined Carrie Kozlowski from Upfront Health to ask–and answer–the question, “Why is Healthcare Doing Less with More Data?” The speakers noted three key barriers to data integration in healthcare: privacy concerns, risk of liability and “how the dollar flows.” Berger said she sees the proper use and integration of data as healthcare’s “Promethean moment,” an opportunity to rebuild trust through allowing patients to recover agency over their data through data advocacy and to use integration as a form of “social cement” that further connects healthcare providers and patients.

Personalized Medicine as a Path to Patient Self-Efficacy

In a heartfelt and hopeful panel presented by Moderna, Head of Oncology Research Kyle Holen hosted wellness expert and Stage 4 cancer survivor, Kris Carr, and Brad Ludden, founder of First Descents, a non-profit organization focused on providing outdoor experiences for young patients with cancer and other serious health conditions. Holen shared his own experiences as a young oncologist feeling like he had inadequate tools to fight against cancer and how that inspires him in researching neo-antigen therapy (INT), the mRNA “cancer vaccines” currently being developed by Moderna. Ludden shared how young people with cancer often feel like their bodies betrayed them and that First Descents participants reported an 81% increase in self-efficacy. That sense of personal agency and control in the face of an uncertain diagnosis is critical to maintaining hope. Kris Carr said that personalized medicine must go beyond pharmacological interventions, “We aren’t statistics,” Carr said, “we are whole people, with whole lives, who deserve complete care.”

Building Trust With Influencers

Rebuilding trust between the healthcare system and marginalized communities was a recurrent topic at SXSW 2024. Cancer advocate Maimah Karmo, founder of the Tigerlily Foundation, and Wendy Short Bartie, SVP and General Manager of US hematology and oncology for Bristol Myers Squibb, addressed the topic on a panel entitled “Cancer Care 2034: Innovations that are Shaping the Face of Cancer.” Bartie stressed that healthcare must be equitable to be considered quality care. “The best innovations without access are just interesting,” Bartie said. Karmo stressed how influencers are trusted intermediaries who can introduce innovations and educate communities about the benefits but warned that a “seagull” approach won’t work. “Your partnerships can’t be performative,” Karmo said. “It needs to be a real relationship.”

Delivering “Empathy at Scale”

Edward Cox, Head and General Manager of Digital Health & Medicine (DHM) at Pfizer joined a live recording of the Science Will Win podcast with Maimah Karmo from Tigerlily Foundation and FNIH CEO and former Merck Chief Patient Officer Julie Gerberding about imagining the Future of Cancer. Cox pointed out that in the last five years, we trained the whole world to use telehealth and a multi-step screening protocol, that’s how quickly technology can be embraced by the industry. But he warned against using technology without being “deeply person-focused.” Noting that healthcare is never going to get less complicated, and each healthcare experience remains unique, Cox said he wants to see technologies like AI used to deliver what he called, “empathy at scale.” “We are one of the only industries where the end result is that we help people live longer and better. Cancer is a dragon that deserves to be slayed, and while AI might be Excalibur, it is only a tool to help us get closer to the patient.”

In the age of artificial intelligence, SXSW 2024 was a reminder that there is no such thing as “artificial humanity.” Patients must remain the impetus and North Star for the industry’s use of technology. Pfizer CMO, Drew Panayiotou, captured the spirit of this year’s conference when he said, “Patients will drive the change, we’re here to be the spark that drives the movement.”

  • Amber Benson
    Amber Benson

    Senior Vice President, Strategic Development, EVERSANA INTOUCH

    Amber Benson is the Senior Vice President, Strategic Development at EVERSANA INTOUCH, specializing in reaching healthcare consumers. Amber is an award-winning healthcare strategist with expertise in trust-based marketing and dignifying stigmatized conditions. The former Executive in Residence at the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University, she currently teaches health communication at the Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University. Contact her at amber.benson@eversana.com

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