Why we should nurture creativity in medical residents

I recently had the opportunity to read Daniel Pink’s Drive.  I read it partly to understand why pay-for-performance often fails to accomplish its goals for complex tasks, such as patient care.  However, the thing I found most interesting about this book was the way in which creativity is deliberately inspired and cultivated by industry.

I could not help but think about why we don’t deliberately nurture creativity in medical trainees.  Why am I so interested in creativity?  Perhaps it is the countless trainees I have come across who are recruited to medical school and residency because of their commitment to service who also happen to have an exceptionally creative spirit.  Unfortunately, I worry too many of them have their spirit squashed during traditional medical training.   I am not alone.  I have seen experts argue the need to go from the traditional medical education that is fundamentally oppressive, inhibits critical thinking, and rewards conformity.   Apart from the criticism, it is of course understandable why medical training does not cultivate creativity.  Traditional medical practice does not value creativity.  Patients don’t equate ‘creative doctors’ as the ‘best doctors’.  In fact, doctors who may be overly creative are accused of quackery.

So, why bother with cultivating creativity in medical training? Well, for one thing, creativity is tightly linked to innovation, something we can all benefit from in medical education and healthcare delivery.   While patients may not want a ‘creative approach’ to their medical care, creativity is the key spice in generating groundbreaking medical research, developing a new community or global health outreach program, or testing an innovative approach to improving the system of care that we work in.  Lastly, one key reason to cultivate creativity in medical trainees is to keep all those hopeful and motivated trainees engaged so that they can find joy in work and realize their value and potential as future physicians.  In short, the healthcare system stands to benefit from the changes that are likely to emanate from creative inspired practicing physicians.

So what can we do to cultivate and promote creativity among medical trainees? While there are many possibilities including the trend to implement scholarly concentrations programs like the one I direct, one idea I was intrigued by was the use of a “FedEx Day.”  FedEx Days originated in an Australian software company, but became popularized by Daniel Pink and others in industry.  For a 24 hour period, employees are instructed to work on anything they want, provided it is not part of their regular job.  The name “FedEx” stuck because of the “overnight delivery” of the exceptionally creative idea to the team, although there are efforts being undertaken to provide this idea with a new name. Some of the best ideas have come from FedEx Days or similar approaches, like 3M’s Post-its or Google’s Gmail.

I haven’t fully figured out how duty hours plays into this yet … so before you report me or ride this off, consider the following.  Borrowing on the theories of Daniel Pink, we would conclude that trainees would gladly volunteer their time to do this because of intrinsic motivation to work on something that they could control and create.  And to all the medical educators who can’t possibly imagine how would we do this during a jam packed training program, lets brainstorm a creative solution together.

Vineet Arora is an internal medicine physician who blogs at FutureDocs.  

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