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We Need to Encourage and Support Medical Student Innovation

In today’s landscape of rapid innovation, medical providers need to quickly adapt in order to thrive in an ever-changing field. Better yet, we need to be equipped to lead and guide the innovations so that we are not just “reactors” to change, but rather the drivers of progress in health care. Empowering providers to be innovators can and should be part of our professional identity training; by cultivating our scientific creativity, we can channel our curiosity, passion and love of learning into actionable avenues for change which ultimately benefit patient care.

When COVID-19 displaced students from clinical environments, we were unsure of how to help the communities that we much wanted to serve. Thankfully, the Johns Hopkins Design Challenge allowed us to form a team, brainstorm ways to improve our COVID-19 response and design potential mobile health solutions for our community. We later participated in the National Science Foundation ICORP program to determine the viability of our designs and discuss with local community leaders if implementation would be possible. This work empowered us to brainstorm timely, creative solutions to help the community around us.

Around the same time, we both noticed the lack of female representation in health care leadership. As MD-PhD students, we both desire to become future leaders in the field; to better understand this underrepresentation and learn how to overcome it, we took part in the Kern Institute’s Transformational Ideas Initiative (TI2) program. Through TI2, we applied innovative design principles to better understand the problem of underrepresentation and how to build solutions. This work evolved into leadership modules for medical students that are currently being piloted at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Moreover, these opportunities allowed us to enact change beyond the familiar classroom environment, as they integrated the fields of medicine, public health and patient care.

The extracurricular opportunities that are advertised to most medical students include academic research, volunteering, student organizations, etc. However, these activities have an agenda set by a principal investigator or past leaders. The lack of opportunities for students to explore their own passions often limits them to traditional research methods. To influence rapid, effective changes such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, students and schools need to think outside the landscape of these traditional involvements. They need to identify problems which they would like to influence, brainstorm creative solutions, collaborate with both medical and non-medical experts and devise quick tests to determine the most effective solutions. While we chose to apply this process to curricular change and public health, it can be applied to every student’s passion — scientific efforts, diversity and inclusion efforts, mentorship and volunteering, just to name a few. 

Moreover, an innovative mindset is teachable and all medical students should receive a baseline education in innovation skills. This does not mean they need to be groomed into entrepreneurs, but rather cultivate the skill sets to make the changes which they envision for medicine. Some quick and inexpensive ways to start encouraging this shift in medical education include (1) hosting multi-disciplinary design competitions such as the Johns Hopkins Design Competition, (2) encouraging students to participate in existing hackathons and make-a-thons, (3) setting aside low-stakes funding sources and elective time for students to build and test ideas, and (4) providing quick hands-on workshops on design-thinking principles and how they apply to medical innovation. Incorporation of design principles into medical curricula has already been successfully trialed (as we experienced in MCW’s T12 program) and implementing these four proposals would show students that innovation spans all disciplines and is vital to the future of the field. 

In conclusion, schools need to broaden their focus  from “scholarly outputs” to include “innovative outputs.” This would empower students and health care providers to explore avenues of change that are not confined by existing groups/research and prepare us to lead the changes in health care instead of reacting to them.

Image Credit: I got an idea!!! (Public Domain) by ky0nch3ng

Kelli Cole (0 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Medical College of Wisconsin

Kelli Cole is a MD/PhD student at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Marquette University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in biomedical sciences and a minor in neuroscience. Her research investigates the mechanisms behind immune-mediated neurodegeneration.

Gopika SenthilKumar Gopika SenthilKumar (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Medical College of Wisconsin

Gopika SenthilKumar is a third year MD-PhD student at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison with a Bachelors of Science in Biomedical Engineering. Her research is focused on understanding mechanisms of human microvascular dysfunction, and she is funded by the American Heart Association Pre-Doctoral Fellowship.