Hacking Medicine: Fostering Medical Innovation

by Madhur Malhotra

Every year, the University of Pittsburgh, home to the best healthcare system in the state of Pennsylvania, attracts thousands of freshman undergraduates who are passionate about pursuing their pinnacle ambition: becoming a physician. “Pre-meds” as they are called, are required to complete difficult science courses, in addition to countless research and volunteering hours. As soon as these are completed, they are required to take a standardized test and hunt for a variety of letters of recommendation.

It seems that the undergraduate years of a pre-med’s life are governed by a checklist of rigid requirements comprised of repetitive tasks and endless memorization of complex concepts. Sir Kenneth Robinson, author, speaker and expert on fostering creativity in education described this current standard of academics as the Intellectual Model of the Mind.

According to Dr. Robinson, this model is comprised of deductive reasoning that only targets “a particular view of the mind.” It is centered around a “production-line mentality” where students are in a classroom based on age or “date of manufacture” rather than their learning ability or learning style. Furthermore, Dr. Robinson believes that conformity is the quintessential element of this factory-line model where all students complete the same assignments with the same problems, each having one answer.

Conformity is evident in pre-medical education as all students go through the same rigid process, trying to meet the same century-old requirements and take the same isolating standardized test. Nonetheless, in a real medical setting, most problems that physicians face don’t have one solution or one approach. Therefore, the purpose of a pre-medical education should be to prepare future physicians who are able to skillfully conduct innovative research and advance the understanding of medicine. How can we foster a culture of creativity and innovation in this stern, barren curriculum that fails to promote novel ideas?

Dr. Robinson and many experts in the field believe that the answer resides in divergent thinking. Divergent thinking isn’t a form of creativity; rather it’s the capacity of creativity. It’s the measure of the amount of ways one can generate a solution to a single problem. Many courses in the pre-medical curriculum don’t encourage divergent thinking, so many students don’t get the chance to practice the skill that will later allow them to conduct cutting-edge research and advance the field of medicine. How can we find venues that encourage and practice divergent thinking in an environment that seems to completely lack it?

MIT Hacking Medicine is an initiative which organizes many medical Hack-a-Thons across the East Coast. Their mission is to “energize and connect the best minds across MIT and the health ecosystem to teach, learn, and launch the next generation of healthcare solutions to solve healthcare’s biggest challenges.”

Stephanie Lee, a senior Mechanical Engineer at Pitt recently attended an MIT Hacking Medicine Hack-a-thon. To Lee, the Hack-a-thon had a stimulating atmosphere with “a huge amount of energy” where everyone was “excited to bounce ideas off of each other [and learn] other people’s perspectives.”

The first part of the Hack-a-thon involved a giant ideation session with individuals of medical, engineering, business, and many other backgrounds. This was the portion of the Hack-a-thon where people generated and discussed many ideas through divergent thinking to solve an array of problems within a health ecosystem. The second part involved meeting the other developers and professionals where, according to Lee, “teams formed organically.” During the Hack-a-thon, Lee gained experiences that she wouldn’t have had in the classroom, as she was able to collaborate with MIT graduate students and doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital to develop a mechanical device with a Pediatric application.

DesignHub is an undergraduate organization at Pitt that hopes to accomplish a similar goal to MIT Hacking Medicine: to help students construct real-world solutions to real-world problems. They have a three-step learning process: workshops to teach applicable skills like 3D modeling, ideation sessions to think about multiple solutions to a particular problem and projects that focus on generating solutions for problems posed by faculty and physicians at Pitt.

“As a DesignHub member, you get exposed to a lot of divergent thinking,” said Lee. Members generate solutions, build rapid prototypes, conduct user testing through experiential prototypes, and receive mentor feedback. Furthermore, members are able to apply all of the skills they learned in workshops and build a finished product. By taking part in MIT Hacking Medicine and DesignHub projects, Lee was exposed to “amazing experiences that stimulated [her] brain” in ways that a classroom setting doesn’t allow. She also had the opportunity to meet “tons of clinicians, strategy analysts, and young entrepreneurs who see things from different perspectives.”

As a pre-med student, it’s challenging enough to receive great grades and meet a long list of requirements. To pursue a curriculum that teaches skills like divergent thinking can be even more difficult. However, initiatives such as DesignHub and Hack-a-thons can supplement learning in the classroom and allow students to ultimately become well-rounded, innovative physicians who are able to solve real-world problems within the health ecosystem.