Medicine and business are not mutually exclusive

As both a practicing physician and the co-founder of a mobile health startup, I’m often greeted with confusion about my two roles. It’s not that there aren’t others simultaneously involved in both endeavors — because there are lots of us. It’s that many people see a contradiction between the mindsets of the two. The way one thinks for medicine, they suggest, is not the way one needs to think for business.

Jonathan Govette wrote a blog post called “The Business Side of Healthcare—Why Most Doctors Are So Bad At It.” And in March, right here on KevinMD.com, Jonathan O’Donnell explained why he thinks medical schools discourage entrepreneurs.

But medicine and business are not mutually exclusive. They are actually complementary, particularly in the case of startups. In both, one must engage in constant learning, and be comfortable both working with data and acting in its absence. And, of course, in both, one has to do all this under the strain of mental exhaustion brought on by long hours and little sleep.

In a recent article titled “I Invest In CEOs Who Are Learning Machines,” well-known venture capitalist Brad Feld wrote that he was “regularly blown away” by the ability of his favorite entrepreneurs “to collect new information, process it, and learn from it.”

In medicine, similarly, there is a culture of lifelong learning. This is manifested not just in the vast array of formal continuing medical education offerings, but also in the potentially more important moments of incremental education that the best clinicians distill from their everyday practice. In business or medicine, if you stop learning, you will stop moving forward.

One way we learn in both fields is through data. The modern technology startup lives and dies on its use of data, engaging in constant statistical analysis to understand user behavior. Intuition plays far less of a role than it once did. In healthcare, meanwhile, data-heavy frameworks, like evidence-based medicine, have become increasingly prominent.

That said, one never has complete information in either medicine or business, and waiting for it can result in dangerous paralysis. One has to use intuition and pattern recognition based on experience, along with whatever partial data is available, in order to act. Since you often do not have the luxury of time, you need to use what management scholar William Duggan refers to as “Napoleon’s glance” — the ability to see, in just a glance, what possibilities lie ahead.

To be sure, some aspects of business are definitely foreign to doctors. For example, I still have no idea how our payroll system works, or what a cash flow statement looks like, and my co-founders have teased me for some of the job interview questions I have asked — possibly because I am more accustomed to a setting where I routinely ask very personal questions. But while all of that can be learned relatively quickly, the ability to both quickly utilize data and act with only limited information, and the instinct to treat every moment as a learning opportunity are the sorts of things that are, through years of medical education, imprinted into your DNA.

Trust me on that. I’m a doctor.

Josh Landy is a critical care specialist and chief medical officer, Figure1.

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