Super-empowered, Hopeful Individual.

Feb 17, 2010, 12:50 AM, Posted by

This is a phrase  Jane McGonigal, game designer, used to describe the type of individual she believes gaming can produce. But the term is also fitting for what I feel right now after attending TED2010. I listened to some of the most intelligent, passionate speakers on a broad range of issues — from zapping mosquitoes (Nathan Myhrvold) to suspended animation (Mark Roth). I feel super excited, energized and optimistic, but I’m left with the question, “now, what?”  Of course, I’ll talk about TED with friends and colleagues in the coming days and I might use for computational type searches, or download Andrew Bird’s album — but is that it?

One talk that feels “actionable” is Esther Duflo’s presentation on using randomized trials to study the impact of anti-poverty interventions in Africa.  Instead of trying to answer the big, controversial question, “Does (monetary) aid work?,” Duflo tries to answer smaller, local questions that provide insight to the big question. For example, mosquito nets are highly effective for preventing malaria, but they’re not being used widely. Duflo wanted to know why and whether cost had something to do with it.  Are poor villagers were more likely to use mosquito nets if they have to pay for them (at a low, subsidized price) versus getting them for free?  Her research showed it’s more effective to give them away for free.

While Duflo talked about global health and poverty alleviation, the concepts she talked about can be applied to the U.S. health and health care system. Instead of asking big questions like “Does prevention work?” or “Do we need universal coverage?” perhaps we can ask a series of smaller, answerable questions. 

What are some of these smaller questions that can provide insight into the bigger health and health care questions?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.