We’re back! And what a privilege it is to be able to say that. After two unprecedented years, Aspen Ideas: Health is absolutely thrilled to return to the Aspen Institute’s campus. So much has changed since we last came together—and yet the issues we will be exploring this year remain as timely as ever. Building on the recognition that the health of one depends on the health of all, science, medicine, and well-being have taken centerstage as global priorities. The imperative of equity has also come into much sharper focus, and throughout our sessions, we will be talking candidly about what that means and how we can bring it forward.
Aspen Ideas: Health 2022 is organized around six compelling themes: Hope, Disruption, Get Smart, Influence, Pleasure, and Security. As always, we will bring visionaries and activists, policymakers and community leaders, artists and scientists together for stimulating, and sometimes provocative, exchanges. Our sessions are designed to engage you in challenging conversations, introduce you to extraordinary innovations, and guide you on a deep dive into the transformations that lie ahead. By creating a forum in which to share knowledge and experience, we offer an opportunity to turn ideas into action and carve pathways towards better health for all.
Join us! Aspen Ideas: Health will take place from June 22-25, 2022 in Aspen, Colorado. Passes are now on sale.
The possibility of a healthier future depends on the power of hope. That hope can be found on the frontiers of science and medicine, where deepening knowledge of the human brain, biome, and genes suggest we may yet conquer Crohn’s disease, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease and bring new vaccines to the world. We find it, too, in young people who believe that change is possible and are driving it forward. For some, the wellspring of hope is a commitment to building knowledge, for others it is bound to a network of community ties. Optimistic innovators, advocates, and leaders—diverse in age, ethnicity, and gender, but united in imagining a healthier world—are determined to bring their vision into being.
Upheaval in healthcare didn’t begin with COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly accelerated it, as telehealth became standard practice, distrust of authority intensified, and the imperative of a strong public health system gained traction. With systemic disparities coming into sharp relief, institutional norms are facing intense scrutiny, skewed access to vaccines is generating broad concern, and health systems are confronting the realities of their own biased practices. Continuing the shake-up, patient advocates are seizing control over their health; big tech is responding to cost pressures, consumer demands, and novel technology with a transformative push into the marketplace; and social impact is increasingly a factor in investment decisions.
Everything seems to be getting smarter. Drones deliver medical supplies to remote locations, water purifiers eliminate contaminants with nanotechnology, and robots are welcomed to the surgical team. Aided by the analytic capacity of artificial intelligence, hospitals are designing new models of care while individuals with rare diseases are searching a wealth of data for genetic clues and new treatment options. But extraordinary advances also pose risks. When smart monitoring devices replace bedside nurses and virtual reality is used to train medical students, a loss of human connection is inevitable. Technology can also raise concerns about privacy and the spread of misinformation when the right safeguards are not in place. And unless newly available innovations are widely shared, the gulf between the haves and have-nots will only widen.
What shapes health policies, practices, and choices? Legislative, regulatory, and judicial decisionmakers play pivotal roles, of course, with their responses to Medicaid expansion, abortion, drug pricing, workplace safety, prison health, and so much more. But they do not operate alone. From the grassroots to the C-suite, the subtle and overt influence of activists, corporations, celebrities, religious leaders, traditional and social media, and niche marketers can also alter our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Pressure points can come from political candidates who center affordable care in their campaigns, protestors who oppose vaccine mandates, and communities that demand their fair share of health-promoting resources. Challenges to democracy and skepticism of expertise increasingly shape the narrative as well.
One of the greatest gifts we have as a species is the ability to experience pleasure. Whether it is nourishing food, the sensory stimulation of the arts, the intimacy of sexual connection, or the power of nature, we are biologically primed to pursue pleasurable activities. Cutting-edge scanning technology and new understanding of biomarkers offer insights into the reward system and the complex cycles of wanting, liking, and learning that influence our response. But the brain’s intricate neural networks can also misdirect us—opioids release some of the same chemical messengers as more life-affirming activities. Like the tears of a clown, the intertwined nature of pain and pleasure reflect the combination of memory, melancholy, desire, and joy that make us human.
No longer can we rely on a powerful military to keep our enemies away. Protecting ourselves in a world imperiled by climate change, microbes that respect no boundaries, and a bombardment of misinformation requires very different defense systems. Bound together as we are, the health threats of deforestation, melting permafrost, zoonotic diseases, vaccine resistance, and the plight of refugee populations demand a coordinated global response. We must also heal our fractured communities, restore trust in our institutions, combat racism, and curb gun violence if we are to be truly safe. A strong social fabric, a well-funded, culturally attuned health workforce, and equitable and sustainable distribution of resources are the true building blocks of a secure future.