A Conversation About Raising Health with Rich Besser

The TEDMED Community is comprised of a powerful network of thinkers, leaders and doers who commit their energy and time towards making the world a better and healthier place. The Community is one of impact and purpose with no shortage of passion from all different points of view, backgrounds and areas of expertise. We rely on our Community to help amplify the voices of those working on the frontlines of health and medicine around the world, whether by collaborating with our Editorial Advisory Board in helping to design the Stage Program, working with our Research Scholars to evaluate potential Speakers, or engaging with Community members in important conversations at TEDMED each year. This passionate group of individuals constantly inspires us.

One of those individuals is Rich Besser, the new CEO and President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Recognizing Rich’s knack for storytelling and obvious passion for creating a healthier world, we asked him to be TEDMED’s first Session co-curator. The result of this collaboration is the impressive TEDMED 2017 Session called Raising Health. We recently spent some time talking with Rich about his connection to the session and the importance of creating a society that values the health of all children equally.


TEDMED (TM): We are excited to have you as TEDMED’s first Guest Curator of a session! What does this opportunity means to you, and why did you want to focus the session on “Raising Health”?

Rich Besser (Rich): I think this is an incredible opportunity to reach an important audience. The opportunity to be a guest curator gives me the chance to try and change how people think about health in many ways. As a pediatrician and a parent, I know the key role that children play in the health of a community and the health of society. Pediatrics is all about potential and what you can do to make sure that a child has the opportunity to grow up healthy. What I’m hoping here is that with this session people will start to think about all of the things that go into creating the circumstances for a child to be healthy. The speakers that I pulled together for this session look at those circumstances in many different ways that I think will expand the thinking for our audience.

TM: If your session was not limited by time, what are the other topics and themes that you would include?

Rich: I would expand the session to tackle some drivers of health that are a little more challenging to grasp, like housing and transportation and linking those directly to children’s health. I think this session will get people thinking in new ways and expand their ideas as to what it means for us all to embrace the children in our community and give them healthy beginnings.

TM: Given the synergies between your personal commitment to improving health and TEDMED’s commitment to sharing the important work and ideas of those leading the way, is there a recent story that has inspired you as you’ve transitioned into your new role at RWJF?

Rich: I’m really new to the Foundation and it’s been an incredible experience getting to know about the work. I’ve never worked at a place where people have more passion for the mission than they do here at the Foundation, and that’s one of the things that really attracted me here.

During the years that I spent at ABC News, I continued to work as a general pediatrician at a community clinic up in Harlem. Once a week, I would leave the wealthy neighborhood around our offices, get on the number 1 subway train and travel about 15 minutes to clinic where I would care for children, 80% of whom were in foster care. Their stories were just incredible and the experiences that these children, at a very early age, had gone through were incredible. Many had parents who were incarcerated or struggling with issues of addiction. Some children were homeless or physically or emotionally abused. And I know from data that the Foundation and others put out that the future for the children in that community was totally different from the children who lived near our studio around Lincoln Circle. And that’s not acceptable. Geography should not define destiny.

Here at the Foundation, that disparity is not acceptable. So, to be working at a place where the mission is all about ensuring that everyone in America, especially the most vulnerable, has a fair and just opportunity for his or her best health and well-being, to me is an absolute privilege. And to bring that message to TEDMED for me is just a wonderful opportunity.

TM: When you think about your time at TEDMED, are there a couple of things that you hope the community takes away from your session? And when you think about yourself personally, what do you hope to take away from the experience?

Rich: I’m looking for new ideas. I like to talk to people who either haven’t thought about these problems before or are coming at them from a totally different perspective, because I think that’s what challenges us to think about new things and try new potential solutions. What I hope they take away from this session is not just mind expansion, but I hope they come away feeling some ownership of the issues that we’re raising and feeling some inspiration to action. If they walk away asking, “what can I personally do to help my community raise healthy kids, to make sure that every child in my community has the opportunity to live a healthy life?” then I think this session will really be a success.

TM: This year, the TEDMED event theme is “Limitless.” When we think of our theme this year, it’s guided by the idea that–just as your fingerprint is unique impression of you, so is your contribution to shaping a healthier world. As part of the event, we are asking that all of our community respond to this. What would your response be – how are you shaping a healthier world?

Rich: You know, I am trying, through the work that I do and through how I lead my life, to help create a society in which we all value every child as if they were our own and where we are creating the circumstances so that every child has a chance to be their most successful and their healthiest. I remember when I was in college feeling a sense of idealism and wanting to make the world better. People would say that you grow out of it. I haven’t grown out of it and I hope I never do because I think that when you’ve got big goals and you really believe in the power of change, and the power of people coming together, and the goodness of people, that is when we can make a big difference in the world for people now and for future generations.


Learn more about the Raising Health Session and the inspiring Co-host and Speakers who will bring it to life:

Rich Besser, Pediatric Health Reformer
Camila Ventura, Zika Family Caregiver
Chera Kowalksi, First Responder Librarian
Dan Knights, Computational Microbiologist
Heidi Allen, Health Access Investigator
Howard Stevenson, Racial Literacy Leader
Jill Goldstein, Clinical Neuroscientist
Sandy Hassink, Pediatric Obesity Fighter