Be an innovator in medical school

The practice of medicine is changing structurally, technology, and financially at an unprecedented rate. Scientific advances in genomics, electronic medical records, an increased focus on quality improvement, and changes in the health insurance structure are a few of the areas in which the landscape of medicine is changing. However, in many of these processes physicians seem to be bystanders. Medicine requires innovative physicians to be part of this change. At the cusp of this transition in medicine, medical students can be innovators: agents of change.

Simply, innovation is defined as a novel idea, method, or device. Having spent a great deal of time during my pre-clinical time working on a few new initiatives in my medical school and far beyond its walls, I wanted to share some lessons I have learned along the way.

1.  Know your environment. You may be lucky to have grown up in the area where you attend medical school. Even so, you may not be fully aware of the health care related problems in the community or the whole new world called the hospital. In any case, it got to start with broom-like strokes. Scout out the top problems in the area.

Try a simple Google search for top health care problem in X (where X = your geographic area of interest).

2. Research the topic you want to pursue. Here too, the internet is your friend. Try get information from academic (PubMed, Google Scholar) and non-academic sources (newspaper articles, NGOs websites, etc.). Also, reach out to faculty members and physicians involved in your medical school who have experience in that area. If possible, seek out faculty members and students outside of medicine. They can help you think outside of the box. Usually, all it takes is an email to meet with these people.

3. Planning. The most important aspect of action is planning. I am a big fan of mapping things out. I mean that in the literally sense. Consider the using a thorough flowchart to draw out how you get from the problem  (point A) to the solution or creation (point B) you envision. People have come up with terms to describe this process such as “mind mapping” and “process mapping.” Look up these terms or find videos on them if you are interested. These techniques are used extensively in business, but people in medicine should utilize them as well. Personally, I have found that they help me explain my ideas to people who have no background in a subject to experts.

4. Doing. If you work hard on the research and planning time, then the doing should be the easiest part. However, here are some important tips along the way:

  • Innovation takes time. Your preclinical time may be limited. So hit the ground running if possible. Importantly, work to make your innovation sustainable so you can pass the torch when the time comes.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. If there is something similar in your area of innovation, consider collaborating with the individual, group, or organization. This too, will help with sustainability.
  • Know thyself. Know what skills you bring to the table. Whether you are a gifted writer, a great organizer, or have computer programming wiz, try to utilize your talents. And on the flip side, bring in people who excel in other areas to can help you achieve your goal.
  • Be on the lookout. Innovative ideas do not require a light bulb moment. Consider the issues you have confronted in your classes. Note problems in your clinical experiences. Jot them down and work on your innovation address these issues when you have time.
  • Perseverance. Many people have great ideas, but few have the conviction to see them through to the end. You will face bumps along the way. Be flexible to adaptation and change. This process is a lot easier if you pursue something you are passionate about. I truly think that is the most important part of innovation.

I cannot promise success, but even if your innovation does not come to fruition during your time in medical school, you will gain some skills that will help you be an innovator later in your career. You will meet interesting people along the way. And you may learn a thing or two about yourself. I wish you the best my future colleagues.

Kunmi Sobowale is a medical student.

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