Long-planned Aspen Ideas: Health hits its marks, makes way for Ideas Festival

Arn Menconi
For The Aspen Times
Ruth Katz, the director of Aspen Ideas: Health and the executive director of health, medicine and society at the Aspen Institute, recaps the week and thanks the attendees for attending the conference some like to describe as the Davos of health conferences.
Daniel Bayer/Aspen Institute

When Ruth Katz walks in a room or to the podium, the atmosphere changes, whether in the awed silence of the audience or her warm, intimate manner when conversing. Either way, the director of Aspen Ideas: Health and the executive director of health, medicine, and society at the Aspen Institute is intent on exploring better physical and mental-health care through collaborations like this.

Her baby, the 10th annual festival focused on health, ended Saturday at noon, making way for the Aspen Ideas Festival to begin later in the afternoon and culminating four days that began a full year ago.

“We try to be a bit ahead of the curve, if you will, anticipating what we think the big issues are going to be,” she said.

For example, they decided to focus on the role of artificial intelligence in health care several months ago, recognizing its growing importance. By featuring such topics, the festival aims to be a platform where attendees can gain insights into emerging trends and ideas.

They were prescient with AI, as FDA Commissioner Robert Califf prophesized on Thursday, “Artificial intelligence will change the health-care industry in the next five years.”

Katz, an expert in health policy before coming to the Aspen Institute, was professor of health policy at George Washington University and associate dean at Yale University School of Medicine before that.

She spoke about planning for the festival and emphasized the importance of collaboration and the need to identify key focus areas within the vast realm of health.

“We never have one single theme. Health is too big,” she explained. “We start a year out and gather around a table. We decide what general areas within health we want to focus on, and they are called tracks.”

The team behind the festival spent long hours selecting the tracks and then delving into specific issues and sessions within each track.

Mental health was a significant component of the discussions at the festival. Katz emphasized the importance of recognizing the interconnectedness of mental and physical health. The festival aims to break down the stigma associated with mental health and encourage open conversations.

“A lot of shame has been associated for a very long time, but more and more people understand that good mental and physical health go hand in hand,” she said. “People talk about it more. They talk about their experiences or their family experiences. It’s had a big effect on workforce issues. There are not enough psychologists and psychiatrists for kids and adults. There is more and more focus on this, and COVID only exasperated it.”

Katz stressed their commitment to showcasing a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds.

“We always want the best people, and the best people are very diverse,” she said. The festival aims to feature public, private, and non-profit speakers, community leaders, and academic experts. A diverse representation ensures a full exploration of health issues, she said, and encourages attendees to incorporate these insights into their spheres of influence and work, ultimately impacting health care back at home. That’s the core idea of the health ideas fest.

She said 40% of the participants are returnees, based on ticket sales this year.

“People think if this program is good, they come back,” she said. The organizers aim, then, to present fresh content each year with diverse speakers and new perspectives. The festival also aims to foster a sense of community, in-depth conversations and connections among participants.

“One of the best things is when I see a session that is over, and you see people sit down on the grass and continue the conversation,” she said. She joked about an unexpected attendee, a bear that came on the Aspen Institute campus “without credentials.”

An integral part of the festival is the Fellows Program, which Katz highlighted: 102 fellows from eight countries, 73 cities, and 31 states — all dedicated to making a difference in health care. The fellows, who must be under 45, represent a wide range of health-care professionals and leaders, she said.

“If we could bring 200, we would,” she said. The Fellows Program gives the emerging leaders a chance to network, learn from one another, and collaborate on solutions to the many pressing health-care challenges in the world.