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Picture a darkened room, late at night. A small group of people, their faces lit mostly by the glow from their screens and tablets, are getting very excited. Not because they’ve consumed far too much Red Bull, (they have) but because they have just created something awesome!

This is the stock Hollywood scene for modern innovation. From Apple and Google to Facebook and WhatsApp this is how we think it is done, and in many ways it’s true. Yes there are more people involved before it becomes a billion dollar idea (usually someone with money to invest), but in general, innovation happens with individuals or small teams who are not limited by rules and regulations. They are not trying to make a product or service, they are just experimenting with what’s cool. Speed, agility, imagination and freedom are the key ingredients (not including energy drinks!).

Trying to innovate in large, heavily regulated industries is difficult and there are few larger or more regulated than Pharma. Perhaps it is not surprising that when it comes to the use of digital, the development of hardware and software to improve patient outcomes or creating whole new areas for life-changing ideas, there has been some talk but few tangible outcomes. Meanwhile the tech and creative sector comes up with new things so fast that it’s hard to keep up.

However, in recent years there has been a new movement taking place; with design and innovation at the intersection between technology and health. This is most notable in the rapid proliferation of fitness trackers like the Jawbone UP, Fitbit and subsequently Apple Watch. The time, it seems, is ripe for the tech sector to be a major player in health and medicine.

This month, 11-20 March, Austin Texas, USA hosts the world’s largest meeting of creative and technical innovators at the South by South West festival. SXSW (or Southby to those in the know) is the Disneyland for anyone working in the digital, technology and creative arts. It combines an interactive, music and film festival into 10 days of organised chaos. Last year saw the introduction of health and med tech into the programme and this has been expanded in 2016 to include both an exhibition space and dedicated presentations and workshops.

At Ashfield Healthcare Communications, we are dedicated to bringing new and innovative solutions to our clients and as a Multichannel Director, I can think of no better place to see what the future holds for healthcare in the 21st century. And so I’m loading up my bags, charging up my devices and heading for the Lone Star State.

Navigating an event which has 85,000 attendees spread across multiple venues in the Austin downtown area; with 1,500 sessions and 5,000 speakers is, to put it mildly, a challenge. Luckily, there’s an app for that! So as I start to make my plans for next week, here’s a quick preview of the key trends which will probably be in evidence in the health and med tech arena.

VR everywhere

From Google Cardboard to Oculus Rift, expect to see virtual reality and augmented reality being used in a wide variety of applications; from helping surgeons to visualise procedures to allowing bedbound patients to explore the outside world. We are already experimenting with VR in our digital and creative teams and I expect to see lots of great examples of its use in Austin.

Apps and devices

We haven’t reached ‛peak app’ yet, so I would expect to see many more apps used to help physicians and patients. When these are paired with devices such as fitness trackers, smart scales, heart monitors, blood glucose monitors and respiratory devices, there are numerous opportunities to monitor and improve health. If there is a biometric that can be measured then you can bet someone has a device and app to support it.

Big data

All those devices and apps collecting data 24 hours a day provide an unparalleled opportunity to anonymise and aggregate this information and deliver whole new services for global health monitoring. I expect Electronic Health Records to also feature heavily in the conversations in the sessions. As with all data, concerns around privacy and hacking will also be a recurring coffee line topic.


The internet connects people and this connection has led to a whole new raft of platforms and services where the collective brainpower, desire and creativity of online communities is combined. Kickstarter and Airbnb have set the standard that many seek to follow. In med tech, crowdsourced learning or diagnosis is the next frontier with companies like at the forefront. I’ll be interested to see how crowdsourcing is being approached and what new opportunities are being explored at Southby.

So while I organise my schedule and meet ups, pack some energy bars and choose which pairs of Converse to throw in my case, somewhere in a darkened room a group of people are planning to take their awesome creation to SXSW. Maybe I’ll see them there?

Nigel Campbell is a Multichannel Communications Director with Ashfield Healthcare Communications. He has spent the past 25 years working in creative communication across all channels, in multiple therapy areas for global healthcare clients. In his spare time he is a photographer, musician, astronomer and collector of comic books.

You can follow his SXSW adventures on twitter @nigelccampbell.


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