This Physician's View opinion piece is written by Chetan K.Patel, M.D., executive medical director of spine surgery at the AdventHealth Neuroscience Institute and co-chair, Robotics and Navigation section of North American Spine Society
As a physician, we have the unique privilege of having complete strangers share the most personal aspects of their lives and trust us to make their lives better.
While we find successful ways to help a majority of our patients, frustration begins to set in when we encounter a handful of patients we cannot assist. Sometimes, the root cause is something as simple as lack of timely communication, but often, it’s the technology, or the solution, that’s not available.
When the frustration level gets high enough, we discuss these barriers with our colleagues, who also express frustration with the same or similar problems, and that’s where our story usually ends. But what if it doesn’t have to end there?
From physician to innovator, but how?
Typically, the burden of solving medical problems lies with universities, government-funded institutions, or medical and pharmaceutical companies. Despite the time and effort these well-funded entities have dedicated to solving medical challenges, there continues to be a growing list of important unsolved medical problems.
As part of our long, grueling years of medical training, we were taught to learn as much as we can and solve problems, as each of our patients represents a potential mystery to solve. Why not put the years of these hard-earned problem-solving skills to work outside of our one-on-one patient-physician role?
If each of us dedicates a small part of our free time to solving a medical problem we are passionate about and then combine our work in teams of like-minded individuals, we would substantially increase the chances of tackling a large number of challenges we face today.
The next natural question becomes, “How do you do this?” For me, this process happens in a few important steps.
Find your passion and build a team
The first and most important step is to find a set of challenges you are passionate about and do research to understand the clinical and technological information, the full scope of the financial impact, and identify a potential rate limiting step or technology that needs to be addressed in order to provide a solution.
Once you have narrowed the field down to one or two problems, the next step is to find colleagues to create a team of individuals that are all equally passionate about solving that challenge. The group should intentionally add team members from disciplines outside of medicine who would have the necessary expertise for any potential solutions. This may involve reaching out beyond your personal network to find engineers, scientists, or technology experts who are equally motivated in solving the problem.
At this point, this “group of inventors” must be convinced the clinical problem is significant enough and the solution is plausible enough to invest time, money, and resources that can be recouped down the road.
Look outside your industry for answers
Once the decision is made collectively to move forward, I’ve found it helpful to look at other industries to understand if they have similar challenges to what you are facing and how they may have solved them.
A famous example of this approach is the invention of the Greenfield filter – something I heard personally from Dr. Greenfield himself. During my time as a medical student at the University of Michigan, Dr. Lazar Greenfield was my vascular surgery professor. I had always assumed he had invented his Inferior Vena Cava (IVC) filter through a stroke of genius that likely could not be reproduced by any ordinary person.
One day, I mustered up enough courage to ask him the story of why and how he created the filter. The story started as I expected, with a young surgeon seeking to prevent Pulmonary Embolism (PE) and avoid the life-threatening complications of performing thrombectomies to try and save the lives of his patients with Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT) and PE. Oddly enough though, the punchline of his story was quite different from what I expected. He shared that the solution came from talking to a petroleum engineer, Garman Kimmel.
It turns out the oil industry had been dealing with a similar problem for years in maintaining oil flow in pipes while catching the sludge and debris in the pipelines. The oil industry used the “witches’ hat” filter to solve their problem and mimicking this is what led to the invention of the same conical shaped Greenfield filter with six open legs that catch clots while allowing blood to easily flow through the IVC.
The design ultimately launched a percutaneous low complication rate procedure which reduced the incidence of PE and permanently changed the course of treatment for patients with DVT and PE. After listening to his story, I was convinced anyone who is dedicated and works as part of a team has at least a small chance of solving important problems.
My personal innovator journey
In the operating room, a surgeon’s every move is critical. Some surgeries, like the spinal procedures I perform, require not only focus and precision, but also for the physician to simultaneously look at both the patient and a monitor to guide surgical instruments
I faced this challenge daily and my solution involved looking outside my industry for the answer.
I, along with the other members of my team, invented eyeglasses for surgeons that tap into augmented reality (AR) technologies which is similar to Google Glass. Called iSight, these surgical eyeglasses overlay critical data, like vital signs, anesthesia and imaging, onto a surgeon’s eyeglasses, eliminating the need for surgeons to turn away from the patient to look at a screen during a procedure.
Developing iSight was not about trying to create the most profitable technology. Instead, the focus was on working with talented innovators solving the targeted problem. In my personal experience of being part of multiple types of teams, this was the most rewarding part of this journey.
Through following your passion, group problem-solving and seeking new expertise as needed, hopefully your team of inventors create a prototype solution that consistently solves your targeted problem and is unique enough to be patented.
The failure rate of medical start-up companies is 80-90%. However, the key to long-term success is to not be deterred by early failures, but to pursue solutions to the most thoroughly researched problem that the team, and not just the individual, is convinced has a successful practical resolution.
For me, the most amazing part of this process is the lifetime gift of knowing that a solution you were part of creating is helping someone live a better life every single day.