“We won’t have a world without cancer, but a world where we have rapid detection and eradication,” according to Jeff Hammerbacher, Hammer Labs.

After attending a number of health sessions at South by Southwest in the past week, two key themes emerged around the devastating topic of cancer.

Behavioral changes are the future

“Up to 50 percent of cancers can be prevented; we now have knowledge in terms of prevention and mitigating risks,” said Dr. Ron Depinho, MD Anderson Cancer Center. “We need to stress behavioral changes – smoking cessation, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising.”

Speakers on several different panels noted that while we currently focus on when people get cancer we need to focus on prevention. These experts reiterated that we’ll always have cancer, however we have to find it early and know what works to get rid of it.

The idea of prevention was obvious in a baseball analogy from Johnson & Johnson’s Alex Gorsky, “We’re getting to diseases at the ninth inning, but we need to get there in the first or second inning. How can we come up with better vaccines to help prevent these cancers from happening in the first place?”

Using data to generate insights

The second theme was that while there is plenty of data in healthcare, problems persist in sharing it appropriately and using it to generate insights. As Greg Simon from The Biden Foundation stated, referencing the Tower of Babel, “There is data everywhere but there are massive translational problems. Medical information lives and dies where it is created. If we change that we’ll change cancer.”

What is needed is a way to interconnect all the silos of data in medicine. While there was consensus that we need to come together to create a central infrastructure, there was not agreement on how to make it happen, since intraoperability is not beneficial to the individual EMR companies.

“We need an interstate highway of health,” explained Dr. Clay Johnston, Dell Medical School. “The information needs to flow with the patient.” Dr. Johnson also stressed the importance of understanding the workflow of clinicians so that technology can be inserted appropriately. Even former Vice President, Joseph Biden, mentioned this issue in his keynote speech, “The inability to share medical records – it’s a technical problem not a cancer problem.”

Another popular discussion point was utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence to organize this data and identify learnings.

Other interesting takeaways

Adding to the challenge is the fact that healthcare is hyper local and markets are unique.  What works in one hospital may not work in another, so solutions are difficult to scale.

This quote from Dr. Depinho was the most popular of all my tweets: “By 2020 almost all cancer patients will be on immunotherapy.”

Overall, it was great to see health take a much larger role at SXSW.  Here’s to next year!