How TEDMED 2016 and a "Metaphoric Murmuration" Helped Reset My Vision of the Future of Healthcare


In a year of what has truly been abundant with personal life changing events, one of my most memorable is being accepted as a Frontline Scholar to TEDMED ( I have been an ardent fan of TED and TEDMED for their ability to be vehicles for spreading innovative thought information ever since I became aware of them. I was incredibly honored to be accepted to their 2016 Frontline Scholars group and was secretly hoping that my experience this past November 30-December 2, would be the “shot in the arm” I needed to bolster my hope in the future of healthcare. I must say that my experience was not what I expected. It was better! In a professional career that has spanned now over a quarter of a century, I have attended a lot of conferences as both a speaker and an attendee. TEDMED was distinctly different. Let me tell you why.

The Power of Passionate Curiosity:      

First, I was struck by the immediate realization that, regardless of their role in the conference, everyone seemed willing to share their knowledge and stories and there were multiple platforms for doing so designed into the experience. This, of course, occurred in formal TEDMED talks, but perhaps, more importantly, a great deal occurred in ad-hoc incidental but meaningful conversations that, in my experience, are not at all common at typical industry conferences.  For example, I had a conversation the first night I was there about communicating the relevance and myriad health and community benefits of housing security with one of the keynote speakers I happened to sit next to during the first presentations. Lloyd Pendleton, a former Ford Motor Company executive, is successfully working to eradicate homelessness in Utah ( and generously shared some of his personal insights with me regarding demonstrating a return on investment for the "right thing to do." I also met Paul Lindberg, at a TEDMED “Hive Discussion,” who is a health specialist for the Columbia Gorge region whose program ( was the Culture of Health Prize 2016 Winner from the 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He has since shared some anecdote related to meaningful improvements their work has elicited in their part of the country which is relevant to my own doctoral research related to the intersection of sustainable community infrastructure and population health. In fact, there seemed to be a genuine, mutual, and universal curiosity on the part of attendees, speakers, volunteers, and scholars to discover and learn about the spaces that one another were working in and what drives our interest and passion in changing health and wellness in our communities. Some of us discussed ways we can join forces in future efforts to create greater impact, but often conversations occurred because of genuine interest and a desire to learn about innovation and ideas that were outside the realm of our own personal experience.

The Driving Force of Divergent Perspectives:

The first thing I noticed about my fellow frontline scholars, was how truly diverse our backgrounds and experiences were. In our cadre, each one of our individual missions, which were all related to driving health delivery and wellness reliability towards a more human-centered focus, was fueled by distinctly different operators. Our group included members like Lydia Green (@RxBalance), a pharmacist that is actively working as a medical writer to democratize health and wellness data and streamline healthcare communications; Liz Salmi (@TheLizArmy), a patient and punk rock drummer, who is using her own experiences battling Brain Cancer to demystify and improve the healthcare experience; and finally, the amazing Jessica Willet (@jkwillettmd ) an ER doctor and volunteer physician for Flying Doctors of America. That’s right folks, you know those heroic men and women you see on the news working to provide essential emergency medical care to people hit by natural disasters or are refugees of military conflicts, Jessica is one of them. This is just a small sample of some of the remarkable people I had the privilege to meet in this incredible group of diverse and committed change-makers. It is fair to say I am pretty much in awe of the work all of my fellow frontline scholars are engaged in and have stayed in touch with many of them. Once you gain access to this level of innovator and agent of positive disruption of the status quo, you want to stay up to date on what they are working on if only for expanding your own personal inspiration repository

A Murmuration of Motivated Minds:      

Being a lifelong student of the Behavior of Systems, I am constantly seeking out patterns in system component actions that can cause noticeable reaction and results. I have always thought it was a little bit “magic” how even small changes in the behaviors of the parts of a system could significantly change its trajectory and consequently its outcomes. “Human Systems” such as those we see that drive the health and well-being of local and global communities essentially share this same characteristic.  As a testament to how this behavior looks in biological systems, I will offer the following video that was shared in one of the breaks during TEDMED titled “A Bird Ballet."

This amazing synchrony of independent organisms is referred to as a “Murmuration.”  You will notice how sometimes a smaller part of the flock, or system of starlings in flight, will at times break off into an open part of the sky, but then comes back to the others to alter the direction and change the shape of the whole. After a bit of investigative research into murmurations, I was struck by what we know about the science behind this bird behavior and how it impacts the design of their flight patterns. In my opinion, this responsive fluidity in system change could be especially relevant to driving change in human powered systems.  This was my last and major takeaway from TEDMED and this phenomenon serves as an appropriate symbol to sum up my experience. That is even when individuals are working in different areas of interest if these separate efforts are linked by a unified shared vision, and we can connect and share information from multiple perspectives, amazing things can occur. You only need to watch the video to see how the science behind signals of shared information can meaningfully change a system’s trajectory.

A key point, those willing to “break away from the flock” to gather or share information are the ones to watch. If you want to see the brighter and bolder future of human-centered healthcare pay attention to these people. They are the ones, because of their divergent and unconventional ideas, passionate and compassionate curiosity, and willingness to be the first to venture away from the flock, whom I believe can finally move health and wellness systems toward true resilience. Meeting some of them at TEDMED has reaffirmed my hope in the future of human health and well-being and transformed my spirit to strive harder and more boldly into re-engineering our current system. To reference an overused, but in this context apt, quote of Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”



Lisa Sundahl Platt is the CEO and Founder of UMNSystems LLC.  She writes about the systems and science of organizational and cultural resilience and how it impacts the human experience.