Allen Urges Colleagues to Innovate

In his Presidential Address, Mark S. Allen, MD outlined five characteristics shared by innovators inside and outside of medicine.

Mark S. Allen, MD is passionate about innovation, and he shared that passion during his Monday morning Presidential Address, “Innovation for Life.” His clarion call illustrated how cardiothoracic surgeons can open their hearts and minds to innovation and ultimately make the specialty better.

Balancing seriousness and humor, he described innovators inside and outside of medicine and their five common characteristics: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

The first skill, associating, requires mindfulness.

“We usually don’t make associations during a busy day or a hectic OR schedule. We need some down time to let these ideas come together,” said Dr. Allen, pointing to William Hunter, MD, who asked how to build a better stent and went on to be the co-inventor of the TAXUS® drug-eluting coronary stent.

The second skill innovators use frequently is questioning.

“Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. We should ask questions about every aspect of what we do. We should ask our patients about what is not going well for them. We should ask them what they are most unhappy about today,” Dr. Allen said. “By questioning, we find areas that need improvement, and the questions may spark an idea for innovation.”

Innovators are better than non-innovators if they possess the third skill, observing.

“Innovators are intense observers,” Dr. Allen said. “They carefully watch the world around them. To improve at this skill, you should actively watch patients to see what they are trying to get from the medical system.”

One such observer in the medical field is Gary Crocker, who was a salesman for medical catheters and tubing for cardiac surgery. He observed that there weren’t good “plumbing tools” for cardiac surgery and went on to start his own company, develop some of the tools used today, and later sold his startup for a hefty amount.

The fourth skill that innovators embody is networking, but this is not about meeting people at various social events or scientific meetings.

“I mean idea networking. This involves spending time working with others in a variety of fields to build bridges into different areas of knowledge,” said Dr. Allen, adding that methods to improve networking for ideas include attending conferences that present ideas, such as TED talks or the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The fifth and final skill innovators excel at is experimenting.

“They are good at trying out new ideas. This does not mean going into a lab and designing an experiment. They do the experimentation on a day-to-day basis. They take apart processes and try new ones to see if they are better. This is how they can answer the ‘why’ questions that come up,” Dr. Allen said. “To see how a complex system behaves after it changes, experiment with it and record the outcome.”

Calling on the audience to lead the way in innovation, Dr. Allen said, “Just because an operation or a process has been around for a long time and may seem ‘normal,’ an innovative idea can change it all. Be open to this change, look for this type of innovative change, embrace it, and see if you can use it to do things better for your patients.

“Now is the time for you to practice and develop these innovation skills so that you can develop new processes, operations, and procedures that will help our patients. It is hard work, but it is worth the effort because it just might make a difference not only in your life, but the lives of others.”