To Move Forward, Medical Science Needs Imagination and Collaboration

Jacob ScottJacob Scott, MD is an astrophysicist with experience in nuclear submarines. He is also a radiation oncologist and is earning a doctorate degree in math. Oh, and he's only 35 years old.

But, he prefers to be known as a cross-disciplinary long-range scout rather than be heralded for any of his single achievements.

Speaking at TEDMED last week, Scott explained that medical science needs people who can connect the dots between subspecialties. MD-trained scientists are well suited for doing this, he said. Medical school is “like a backstage pass to everything cool about being a human being,” Scott explained. “As a med student, all you have to do is look curious and confused, and people show you everything they have ever done that is cool.”

But the field of medicine has been discouraging creativity and imagination, he argued. And in the last 15 years or so, biology has evolved tremendously—while the way the field is approached has remained practically unchanged.

What this means now, is that, in order to be an expert, a scientist can only understand ever-smaller pieces of the biomedical-knowledge puzzle. Experts are getting “deeply partitioned, disconnected, and pigeonholed.” And, as technology and experimentation have surged forward in biology, theory has been left behind. “30 years behind,” he said.

One part of the problem is that the enrollment of medical students has become overly stringent, which fosters conformity more than creativity, Scott said. To qualify for medical school, one has to have “a perfect resume across the board,” he explained. “GPAs and MCAT scores, since I have been in high school, have gone up by a whole standard deviation,” he added. And as a result, students are taught to shy away from risk and to narrow their focus.

In the process, the field is weeding out is creative solutions, leaving very few people to connect the dots.

Scott encouraged that medical school students “step outside of your clinical routine, step away from your textbooks, dial back the focus on your microscope, try desperately to remember the science you knew before you studied for your MCAT, and get out of your comfort zone.”

Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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