Rocky Mountain High

— What did I find at the Aspen Ideas Festival? A lot of inspiration and hope

 A photo of the site of the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.
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    Fred Pelzman is an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell, and has been a practicing internist for nearly 30 years. He is medical director of Weill Cornell Internal Medicine Associates.

(And before you ask, no, I did not partake of any legal weed in Colorado, just not my thing.)

Earlier this year, I made the decision that it was time for a little bit of a change of venue, a time to get away and refresh and recharge.

I decided I wanted to go to a conference, but could not decide which one I wanted to go to.

A friend suggested the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, specifically the 3½-day health-focused portion, which she had been to and found really enjoyable.

When I looked at previous years' speakers, I figured, "What the heck -- might be worth a try. I might find some interesting ideas and some like-minded people." Besides, my wife has family in Aspen whom we don't get to see very often, and maybe I'd even try to sneak in a day or two of fishing and hiking.

When the time for the conference finally arrived, I headed in with a little bit of trepidation, not sure what I was going to find. At many conferences, I find myself feeling a little lost. I'm not sure how to connect and I feel a little out of place, like maybe I don't belong.

I admit that prior to heading out West I had been feeling a little burned out, a little frazzled, and a little overwhelmed by all the things that need fixing, in our practice and in our institution as well as in the healthcare system in general, not to mention everything else that's going crazy in this country.

The feeling I got when I arrived at the conference was one of innovation and excitement, a time for a fresh look at things, and I think I got more out of it than I thought I would. For almost every session there was at least one, if not two or three, talks that I wanted to attend. Either they were talks by really interesting people doing really interesting things in healthcare, or they gave me a chance to see some of the rock stars of healthcare (such as Atul Gawande, Vivek Murthy, and Francis Collins) who jammed the rooms and inspired us all.

The conference was incredibly well done, well-organized, and included plenty of coffee, and the moderators were some incredibly gifted medical journalists who kept the talks focused and drew their interviewees out in really interesting ways. At every session, I sat down at a table with people I didn't know, stuck my hand out and introduced myself, asked what they did, talked about what I do, and almost always felt inspired and energized.

I came away with ideas big and small and new opportunities for collaboration. I felt as if, despite all the barriers we face in trying to fix this broken healthcare system, there is a great deal of hope and possibility that was shared among an enormous community of people all fighting the good fight.

One thing that impressed and made me feel most hopeful was how many people brought their talks back to the critical importance of a solid foundation of primary care as the bedrock of healthcare in this country. Primary care, linked up with a robust public health infrastructure, was seen as key to whatever solutions we need to transform our healthcare systems locally, regionally, and nationally.

At the end of the conference, after I took a long hike on Aspen Mountain, I sat down at a funky vegan coffee shop with a lemonade, a cappuccino, and a large Caesar salad. I pulled a notebook and pen out of my backpack, and proceeded to regurgitate page after page of ideas, new projects, new quality improvement initiatives, new ways of organizing the work we need to do, new demands to make of leadership, and new ways to help make myself and those I work with better at doing our jobs, and in the long run improving the lives of our patients.

I'm not going to say that I'll be able to get all of this done -- there certainly are some lofty ideas that maybe had a little bit of the "tilting at a windmill" feel to them -- but it was nice to once again be inspired, to be amped up about what we do, to realize how many others out there really care and think we can make a difference.

Over the next few weeks and months, I hope to write about some of the ideas I developed, some of the projects I've started, and some of the new friends and collaborators I've met, and I plan to highlight the work that these collaborators are doing.

I arrived back in New York City to an electronic health record in-basket heavy with messages, tons of emails, and a packed patient schedule on my first day. But I'm hoping that the Rocky Mountain High (see photo below from the John Denver Sanctuary) will continue for days, weeks, months, and years to come.

And, yes, I even got in a little fishing!