TEDMED’s Jay Walker Is Bullish on the Future of Health

Ahead of His Grand Rounds Talk, Walker Draws a Line from Imagination to Innovation

September 15, 2015

TEDMED speakers from Thomas Frieden to Katie Couric convene each year to illuminate topics in health and medicine. But according to TEDMED Chairman and Curator Jay Walker, their most important asset is their ability to spark listeners’ imaginations.

On September 16, Walker—who has stood on the stage at TEDMED and its older brother, TED—will take his turn at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health as the inaugural speaker in the latest season of the Dean’s Grand Rounds on the Future of Public Health. Taking a page from Walker himself, this year’s theme is “The Public Health Imagination.”

A techno-optimist, Walker sees himself as an antidote for those discouraged by negative trends in public health. Never before has there been so much information about human behavior and biology. Innovations that made possible huge leaps in smartphone technology, he believes, will soon give rise to a new generation of sensors that provide real-time feedback from thousands of sources within our bodies.  

The resulting data-gusher stands to transform pubic health, making the Framingham Study, the gold standard for epidemiology, look like a random throw of the dice by comparison. For the first time, Walker anticipates, epidemiologists will make true apples-to-apples comparisons, precisely matching people with the same lifestyle, environment, stress levels, eating habits, and more. “We’re living at the cusp of an entirely transformative age when it comes to information at the individual layer,” he says, “which will directly affect what we know at the population layer.”

First we’ll need to dream up new ways to convince people to share the details of their biochemistry—but Walker believes this transition will be easier than it seems. “By most measures, Americans are the most generous people on Planet Earth,” he says. “There is no reason to believe that generosity won’t extend into sharing our health information for the betterment of mankind.”

In Walker’s imagination, creative use of technology can also remake health education to better prepare citizens for the future. “That future is not just a jobs future; it’s a health and environment future.” His solution: a combination of virtual reality and “game-ified” learning. “You’re going to see for the first time the impact of what you’re doing to your body by not sleeping, the impact of what you’re doing to a child by yelling at them, and the impact of what it means to engage in a health behavior that in the past has been hidden from you, or scolded at you,” Walker explains. “You’re going to see, ‘wow, this is actually about me.’”

But these changes won’t happen on imagination alone. To go from imagination to innovation, explains Walker, takes two more “I” words: investment and intellectual property. He should know. An avid inventor, Walker is a named inventor on more than 700 patents, and the founder of three companies that today serve 50 million customers each—including Priceline.

“Capital must be put to work in health and medicine,” says Walker. “There is essentially no pharmaceutical research industry in India because there is no intellectual property in pharmaceuticals there. Anything can be copied for pennies, but it takes billions to make it work.” Even so, as personalized medicine creates treatments that can be customized for every patient, intellectual property law will be forced to adapt. “How do you patent a drug when every drug is different for every person?” Walker asks. “Clearly we’re going to need a new kind of patent.”

Walker’s passion for imagination is dramatically on display in an institution he created: the Library of the History of Human Imagination. This collection of thousands of rare books and artifacts includes an original 1957 Sputnik satellite, an actual Velociraptor skeleton, and numerous documents and treasures from the history of health and medicine. Among his favorites is a “Bill of Mortality” from London in 1665 when plague ravaged the city. This government document lists thousands of plague deaths in a single week, alongside a handful of more commonplace causes of death such as childbirth and apoplexy.

“Even in the midst of a plague,” says Walker, “the public health authorities of the time were doing their job, rolling up the data. They believed that generations following them would be able to use that information to make some good out of what—at the time—had to be among the most hellish circumstances in the world.” Even then, public health was betting big on the future.