Medical students can rebuild our broken system from within

As a medical student seeking to learn the principles of entrepreneurship, I have found Steve Blank’s insight to be a great guide and resource. His Harvard Business Review article, entitled “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything,” was my first exposure to the idea of customer discovery.

The idea of customer discovery is a simple practice — listening intimately to multiple customers’ needs and pain points and using it to inform a specific, tailored solution. Mr. Blank relieves some apparent pressure on the entrepreneur because generating viable ideas does not require prodigious smarts or talents — merely the willingness to “get out of the building” to talk to as many potential customers as possible with tenacious empathy.

The word “empathy” serves as a buzzword that brings my mind back to my medical training. And then it strikes me: The general clinical year that every medical student embarks on offers the best customer discovery opportunity in all of health care.

No health care professional gets out of the building more than the medical student, whose general clinical year is structured such that they rotate in 10 different disciplines (e.g. surgery, medicine, pediatrics, etc.) and on up to 29 different services (e.g. trauma surgery, thoracic surgery, anesthesia, etc.). We are essentially “homeless” during this time. This universal medical education component delivers intense, diverse, and intimate encounters with potential customers of all kinds, including patients, providers, and health systems.

If I take Mr. Blank’s plea more metaphorically, I also sense he instructs entrepreneurs to remove themselves from their habitual thought patterns and daily workflow to truly understand and wrestle with their customers’ pain points. As medical students, we generally lack a firmly entrenched status quo in our thinking or work. We are blissfully naïve, truly listening to and learning from our patients and colleagues with minimal bias or conceit.

Given these capacities, medical students may be better available to “get out of their heads” than those people further along in training, who routinely attend to a narrow patient population as part of a consistent team. We have enormous potential to identify and define health care opportunities for change if only we are encouraged and equipped to do so.

Undergraduate medical education must evolve to foster innovative thinking in addition to medical expertise. The general clinical year affords the ideal environment in which to cultivate innovative thinking in preparation for the long road of training ahead. By unlocking medical students’ potential to stimulate change, we can empower future innovative health care leaders to significantly and meaningfully influence the creative destruction of our health care system that is happening everyday around us. We can be the ones to rebuild our broken system from within. Our patients and our society will be better served because of it.

Jonathan O’Donnell is a medical student and can be reached on Twitter @jonodoc.

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