Health CareOrganizing for innovation

What to Unlearn as a Physician to Successfully Improve Health Care

Health care innovation

The path to becoming a physician is long, exhausting and expensive. Besides having a lot of stamina, those of you who make it do so because you are on a quest to improve people’s health and improve health care. You have seen a patient, friend or family member suffer through their medical treatment and thought that there ought to be a better way.

While in training, you probably were too busy to have time for anything else. However, in the last years of medical training, I have seen many of you – passionate residents and fellows – eager to start working on your ideas and realize your vision of how to improve health care.

Innovating physicians have a daunting task ahead and lessons to unlearn

Unfortunately, the moment you feel ready to start is also when reality hits. Time is scarce and the tasks ahead are daunting.

The more you learn about what you need to figure out, the less feasible it all appears. In spite of your years of training and education, you probably have not come across business and management terms like “value propositions,” “stakeholders,” “pricing strategies” and “business models.” Concepts that sound foreign and unappealing to most of you – at least that is what I have learned from working with physicians. You went to medical school, not business school, for a reason! All this new terminology may make you wonder whether you are back to square one in your education, which you were so desperately eager to complete.

Good news

To succeed at this point, be assured that there is no need for you to go to business school. A business school would certainly teach you management concepts, but just knowing the terms won’t help you. Only by going through the process of innovation, will you start to understand what these terms actually mean and imply, and why they are important.

Bad news

Instead of learning more, you may have to unlearn

Instead of learning more, you may have to unlearn some skills that are critical to being a physician. Patients come to you for answers. You are trained to ask the patient questions that will help you in your diagnosis, and based on the information presented you form your opinion and share that with the patient. Your training will help you ask the right questions and make the correct diagnosis.

While this skill set serves you well as a physician, it may not be helpful when innovating for two reasons:


First, innovation requires a broad set of skills that no one possesses, not even the people who have gone through the process before. In other words, it’s impossible to know it all.

The terminology used to identify this type of missing knowledge is “not-knowns.” There is a lot of knowledge out there that you may not have, but others do. To get to it quickly, you have to team up.

As Elizabeth Philips, PI of the NSF I-Corps Bleed Freeze team stated “I knew that I didn’t have the time to do everything and until I found Romil Patel I had considered just not entering the George Washington University Business Plan Competition. I asked around for a grad or undergrad student who could fill the gaps in my knowledge and had the time and enthusiasm to move the project forward.

Not-knowns are thus not a problem, so long as you learn to acknowledge them and seek collaboration and input from others to fill the gaps.

However, asking others to fill in gaps in your knowledge and knowing how to work together as a team are not skills taught at (m)any (medical) schools currently.


Second, innovation is a quest into the unknown. There are questions nobody has the answer to. These we call “unknowns.” Instead of making assumptions or pretending you know the answer, to be successful in your innovation quest means that you will have to acknowledge these unknowns and figure out strategies and even experiments to obtain the answers.

The latter is something you probably have encountered in your education, since doing research involves the design and testing of hypotheses.

To proceed, you have to be wise enough to know what not-knowns and unknowns are on your innovation path and brave enough to admit that both exist and need to be addressed.

So what is there to unlearn?

On the one hand, to accept and admit that not-knowns exist, you have to acknowledge ignorance, seek out help from others and build a team.

On the other hand, to learn how to distinguish not-knowns from unknowns, you have to openly admit your doubts and be honest about your biases.

It may help to share your doubts and questions with physician colleagues. These are people from whom you may be most willing to accept criticism and advice.

However, since physicians have a similar background to yours, they will probably not be able to help you fill the not-known gaps. Nor will they be able to help you get to some of the unknowns, as in the end it is only your future customer – in many cases the patient – who can address and resolve them. Only they can tell you whether they find the identified problem as troubling as you do, whether your solution is truly an improvement, and whether they would be interested in paying for it.

As simple as this summary may sound, it is more difficult than you think to put into practice. I urge you to watch the 2 min lessons-learned video of the Bleed Freeze team. It took the team more than 100 interviews to nail the customer-value fit.

Once you have built the skills you need to address and resolve not-knowns and unknowns, have built a network of people who can help you with the not-knowns, and have built experience and confidence in how to resolve unknowns, you will be successful in improving health care, whether the issues are small or big.

Health care innovation

Professional Service Innovation


Organizing4Innovation is proud to offer the first innovation management approach that is dedicated exclusively to the professional services. For more information see