Can hospitals integrate technology into patient care? Photo credit: Elena Zhukova, from UCSF Digital Assets.

Stanford MedicineX and the IKEA of Healthcare


Walking across the Stanford University campus on Saturday, September 26th, the feeling was one of peacefulness and quiet repose. School not yet in session, people were few and far between. A father and son languidly threw a frisbee on the inviting green grass of The Oval.

However, zoom in on the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, perched at the edge of the School of Medicine, and the scene rapidly changes: lights flash, people bustle, an indefatigable wait-staff brings out trays of food and buses continually. The Li Ka Shing Center, with its vast panels of windows, open floor plan, and burgeoning fount of audiovisual displays, was that weekend playing an immaculate host to Stanford MedicineX, by all accounts a new type of medical conference.

Now what exactly does that mean? At Stanford MedicineX, there is a lot of talk about what Stanford MedicineX is, and the rhetoric occasionally feels buzzword-heavy: “User-Driven Technologies,” “The Plugged-In Patient,” and “Patient-centered Design” are examples of the various breakout sessions that took place throughout the conference. Despite (or perhaps because of) the redundancy in titular language, there is a clear mission at work.

Stanford MedicineX is the brainchild and orchestration of Dr. Larry Chu, Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at the Stanford School of Medicine. Dr. Chu spends the rest of the year running an impressive clinical research lab on opioid addiction and teaches classes at the School of Medicine, mostly on incorporating principles of design in the healthcare world.

The two main tenets of Stanford MedicineX are “oughts” for the future of healthcare: 1) healthcare ought to be first and foremost patient-centered, and 2) healthcare ought to be embracing of technology and design. The focus is much more on innovation in the private sphere than on reform in public healthcare policy.

From the front lines of MedicineX, what does “innovation” and “patient-focused” look like? To answer this, I looked to Sweden.

After all, there must be something to learn from a country that spends proportionately less of its GDP on healthcare (10%, compared to 17% for the U.S.) and performs among the best in the world in many health statistics, including average lifespan and infant mortality rates. A country with cost ceilings of ~$130/ year for medical consultations and care, and only ~$260/year for prescription medicine.

On the third floor of the Li Ka Shing Center, I found a group of five Swedes, representing both the Karolinska Institute (a prestigious Swedish medical college) and a digital health start-up called Nerve Labs, which develops an app for managing personal health.

They were hosting an interactive workshop called “Is Sweden Building an IKEA for Health?” As a twenty-something with an apartment largely furnished by Swedish efficiency, I was intrigued.

The workshop began with a short lecture outlining the infrastructure surrounding electronic health records (EHRs) and personal health records (PHRs) in Sweden. The country has an online portal that allows each patient access to a central location where they can view all health history documentation, make appointments, renew prescriptions, etc.

In addition, the country has pushed to allow developers access to EHR data, so that they can improve software and apps to allow clean, instant communication across all parts of the healthcare community. The system seemed to favor open sharing of data over patient privacy, though this is not to say the latter was wholesale neglected.

The take-home element of the workshop was not the opening lecture, but the collaborative exercise. In order to illustrate the challenges and the non-complacency of the forward-thinking Swedish health culture, the workshop organizers pushed us to improve upon their digital health infrastructure.

Workshop participants were divided into groups representing different sectors: patients, providers, industry, academia. Each sector was responsible for brainstorming improvements. I was partitioned into the patient group, where we advocated for better access to reviews of healthcare quality, among other things.

Overall, the workshop seemed representative of many of the main ideas afloat at MedicineX. While it may be easier to change electronic access to health records in a smaller country with a more centralized healthcare system, the goals are the same across borders: use technology to put patients in greater control of their own health.