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Why Doctors Make Great Entrepreneurs

Some think that physician entrepreneurship is an oxymoron – an inherent contradiction in terms. Conventional wisdom has it that doctors are lousy businesspeople, and that they should concentrate on patient care and leave the business stuff to someone else. I disagree. As someone who works with, and teaches, those people interested in the business of science and medicine (physicians, scientists, engineers, business students and other health professionals), and also as someone who practices clinical entrepreneurship, I know that doctors have the potential to make great entrepreneurs. Admittedly, only a small percentage of the 625,000 actively practicing physicians in the US have an entrepreneurial mindset and even fewer are innovators. However, it only takes a few to disrupt the system and add substantial value.

For example, two practicing emergency physicians – Wayne Guerra and Peter Hudson – were all too aware that inappropriate ER use led to waste and inefficiency, so they envisioned an iPhone app that empowers patients to make the right triage decision for themselves. The result was iTriage (www.itriage.com), a company eventually acquired by a major insurance company.

There are many skills and abilities that overlap between clinical medicine and entrepreneurship. Both require impeccable judgement – ultimately derived from experience and learning from your mistakes. Very few entrepreneurs have not had their share of mistakes or failed startups. The successful ones learn from those mistakes and apply better judgment in pursuing the next opportunity. Entrepreneurship is also about research and experimenting, something doctors do well. 

Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship is not a straight line, but rather an unpredictable, often uncontrollable process.

Creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship is not a straight line, but rather an unpredictable, often uncontrollable process. Entrepreneurs are forced to make decisions with incomplete information. Likewise, doctors are used to dealing with uncertainty. Both make decisions based on gut feeling, with intuition often driven by urgency. In fact, doctors make off-the-cuff decisions more than we would like to admit. Only about 25–35 percent of medical decisions are based on scientific evidence (1). Because of the sense of urgency inherent in clinical decisions, doctors have a bias to action. While obtaining a history, doing a physical exam and running tests are a routine part of care, they are all a means toward an end – solving or relieving the patient’s problem. Decision making, whether in dermatology, pathology or multiple other specialties, relies heavily on pattern recognition skills. Doctors know how to question, observe, connect and associate – core entrepreneurial skills. What’s more, they know how to assess risk and make on-the-spot cost–benefit decisions. 

Put another way, doctors have plenty of experience with making tough decisions in the worst of circumstances. Pulling the plug on a promising new technology or idea is easy compared to making a decision to discontinue treatment in the ICU. The key to entrepreneurship is to kill ideas early and often. You have to have the courage to know when something won’t work or should be ended. Doctors deal with that circumstance on a routine basis.

For all these reasons and many more, doctors make great entrepreneurs. After being marginalized, ignored or disinterested, more and more clinicians are actively embracing opportunities for change. Physician–entrepreneurship is going mainstream. And so, if you are one of these pioneers, next time someone raises their eyebrows when you tell them you are a physician–entrepreneur, you should tell them exactly why doctors make great innovators. They might just offer to invest in your idea.

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  1. S Kumar and DB Nash, “Health care myth busters: is there a high degree of scientific certainty in modern medicine?”, Scientific American (2011) Online at www.scientificamerican.com/article/demand-better-health-care-book/ (Accessed 24 February 2016).

About the Author

Arlen Meyers

President and CEO, Society of Physician Entrepreneurs and Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine, USA.

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