Specialized Training Can Unleash Surgeon Innovation

Better education and creating opportunities that support innovation and entrepreneurship in academic medicine are essential for accelerating advancements in cardiothoracic surgery.

“Twelve years of postgraduate training did not prepare me at all to be successful at innovation and entrepreneurship, and almost all of my surgical colleagues are in the same boat,” said Mark S. Cohen, MD, who delivered the keynote address at Tech-Con 2020.

Dr. Cohen, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, drew from his personal experiences as an innovator, as well as his roles at the University of Michigan, which include executive director of the Michigan Surgical Innovation Prize Program, director of the Medical School Path of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and innovation chief at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center.

Building a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship requires understanding the challenges, pooling resources, and creating a custom curriculum for a range of learners—from students to professors.

According to Dr. Cohen, a major barrier is the lack of a medicine-focused curriculum in innovation. “Surgeons are natural innovators, but they have a unique skillset that must be addressed. Surgeons need customized training,” he said.

Educating surgeons in innovation offers many benefits such as accelerated development of research projects, new collaborations across institutions and with industry, novel funding mechanisms, and research portfolio diversity. Surgeons also are better able to evaluate new technologies for incorporation into practice. Dr. Cohen noted the top five sectors of innovation in cardiothoracic surgery: stem cell therapy, nanotechnology, 3D bioprinting, augmented reality imaging, and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Many roles are available for surgeons with this training, including entrepreneur, start-up team founder, consultant, advisory board member, product tester, clinical trial investigator, and researcher-licensee.

Dr. Cohen also highlighted the value of starting training in innovation and entrepreneurship with medical students. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we could more formally educate even our medical students to be leaders in innovation?’ Think of how much more they can accomplish as residents with these tools already under their belts.”

He described a pathway in medical school that includes education in design thinking, value propositions, delivering a compelling pitch, and adoption and reimbursement; mentored electives such as venture capitalism and business growth; and the development and presentation of a capstone.

Factors other than money should be considered when evaluating a return on investment, said Dr. Cohen. At the University of Michigan, the return on investment for the innovation and entrepreneurship pathway has been outstanding. Since 2016, 126 medical students have developed new solutions to current problems. The university has experienced a 300% increase in the number of MD/MBA candidates and a 100% increase in the number of female medical students pursuing the pathway. Medical students have won 11 regional or national pitch competitions, and eight start-up companies have been established with more than $18 million in follow-up funding. “Not bad for just 3 years,” said Dr. Cohen.