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Associate Chief Medical Officer at IBM to appear on VITALS May 6

Medical oncologist/hematologist Mehool Patel, M.D. (’98), M.B.A., will be the featured guest on the VITALS: Visionary Health Leadership in Action Speaker Series Thursday, May 6. 

Dr. Patel is the associate chief medical officer within IBM’s HOPE (Health Officers Pursuing Excellence & Evidence) team. On the May 6 VITALS webinar, which is free and open to the public, Dr. Patel will address the growth in technology in healthcare, including the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in radiology and pathology. 

Prior to his VITALS appearance, the College of Medicine alumnus reflected on a few questions about leadership in the worlds of health care and technology.  

Do you consider yourself to be a natural leader? Why or why not, and do you think those qualities are innate or can be learned?

I think I’ve become a natural leader as the years have gone by. I’ve never been a shy person in social settings or in my professional career, but I was more reserved in school. In school, I tended to be more reserved and avoided responding to general questions. But as I moved beyond the first two years of medical school and on to residency, fellowship and in my career, I became more confident. I continued further education while working as a fulltime career, earning an M.B.A. What I learned while earning my M.B.A. was how to use organizational leadership to improve my skills and confidence. From my own experience, I do believe that leadership can be learned and it definitely helps to be open to paths that can improve skills to be a better leader.   

Tell us a story: Give an example of an experience or interaction during your time at NEOMED that encouraged you to be a leader.

For me school was a long time ago and we didn’t really have clubs or activities that required leadership, but I do clearly remember a time during my third year of my surgical clerkship. I was on a surgical team of about six doctors and was assigned at random to each of them for each of the surgeries. One doctor  was quite cantankerous. None of the residents or other students wanted to be on his cases. 

During one of his surgeries, I was trying to be a good medical student and my task was to keep the field free from blood with the suction catheter. Nothing exciting or extraordinary. However, he suddenly stopped and blurted out, x$%@T, there must be kryptonite on the field, I can’t see through the suction! I looked up and just started laughing. That must have broken some ice, because after that I was really able to learn a tremendous amount from him. 

The experience led me to volunteer and be selected to work with one of the other surgeons no one wanted to work with. I took a more confident approach and every time I got to work with him, he let me do the surgery literally from end to end for laparoscopic appendectomies to cholecystectomies. This gave me the drive to seek out the procedures, and I was then given more responsibilities caring for patients. 

Another time I felt an interaction encourage me to be a leader was during my fourth year, while on my Sub-I elective (a clinical rotation). The hospital I was at was testing a new plan with fourth-year Sub-I students and gave the other student and me tremendous responsibility to care for the patients as if we were interns. This allowed both of us to really take full responsibility for the patient, coordinating all parts of the care and making all the phone calls. While this was to be reality the next year, it really allowed me to know that I could function and not need others to review and make the calls. This gave me confidence during residency and encouraged me to stand up and not be shy about voicing my own opinions. 

Both experiences stood out because they gave me confidence to seek opportunities in uncomfortable scenarios and not be timid about challenging set ways.  

What did you not know about leadership when you were in school that you wished you had known (and would like to pass along to today’s students)?

I wish that when I was a student someone had given me the knowledge not to worry about being wrong. I think so many of us back then didn’t want to be wrong or make a mistake. But in reality, being wrong in the first two years of school does not lead to any patients being injured. Making mistakes or answering questions wrong then will not be remembered, but the lessons will stick and encourage one to do better and achieve more. 

Additionally, I would recommend students to seek out opportunities – going above and beyond what is asked. When students show that initiative, it leads to opportunities, and individuals remember the students who stand out. These students who drive positive interactions with attendings and residents/fellows make connections that lead to robust relationships in the future. In a few years, the people you meet as students will be your colleagues. 

Another aspect of leadership is for students to be aware of financial and technical aspects. Experience and background in these aspects of health care is – unfortunately – becoming critical for clinical leaders. If this is of any interest to you as a student, give serious consideration to pursuing these additional educational opportunities. It will be much harder as an attending than as a student, because you will have added pressure later on. Unless financial constraints are too strong, don’t worry that you will fall behind your peers because you took an extra year to get an additional experience. 

What is different about being a leader in a technological field compared with in a clinical setting? What do you see as parallels?

One key difference is that when a physician serves on an administrative committee, they are one of many important voices. It is not exactly like clinical practice, where the clinician is often at the pinnacle of decision making. If this doesn’t rattle a clinician, then being in a tech company or like industry could be a fit for someone considering this as an option. The voice of clinical subject matter experts remains invaluable for project success, because we often not only educate about clinical scenarios but also act as patient advocates. 

My role is to advance technology to improve workflows, utilize predictive analytics, and assist in improving clinical trial efficiency and other similar endeavors while interacting with colleagues in development, design, OM/PM, marketing and sales. This role has given me an incredible view into the complexities of the technology being developed to revolutionize healthcare. The parallels I see are the complex web of smart individuals who are able to come together and develop ingenious solutions.  It reminds me of the different voices at tumor board – a mixture of different specialties talking through cases to generate the best path forward for patients. 

Register for VITALS: Visionary Health Leadership in Action with Mehool Patel, M.D., Thursday, May 6. 

There is no charge for the webinar. Free CE credits are also available.