Healthcare Technology Featured Article

August 26, 2014

Does Being a Surgeon Qualify You to be a Successful Startup Entrepreneur?

I finished medical school 30 years ago when the startup world was essentially non-existent. In fact, the personal computer, as we know it today, hadn’t even been developed. To give you a little bit of historical background, it was only in 1981, my second year of medical school, that the IBM “personal computer” was introduced. Based on the computer development timeline and my relative ancientness, the fact that I can use email regularly means I may have already exceeded the general technical skills for a person of my vintage and experience.

All this comes down to one important question: Having finished most of my formal education and training prior to the advent of the Macintosh computer, am I qualified to run a technology startup?

Alternatively, medical practice has changed very little over time. Although diagnostic testing and surgical techniques have changed significantly, the fundamental way that we assess patients and arrange surgical procedures has remained static. Although medical practice hasn’t changed much, many of the things that I have experienced and learned during training and practice seem to have prepared me for the ups and downs of heading-up a technology startup (I think).

As a surgeon, we learn very early that when you start a surgical operation the only endpoint is to complete that operation to the best of your ability. Once I begin, I have assumed responsibility to take care of that patient from start to finish. Similarly, in the startup business, once you have started and taken money from your children’s education fund (or your mom and dad’s retirement fund), or from a VC, there is no going back.

In surgical practice, I occasionally have to make rapid decisions with incomplete information because the patient deteriorates if I wait too long. I have to weigh the intangibles and use my instincts and experience before the patient gets worse. In the early startup environment, there is often more uncertainty than there is known information, and decisions need to be made in order to move the business forward. Again, I have to weigh the possible risks of not making a decision, to avoid the loss of a key opportunity, and see them through to the end, no matter the outcome.

As a surgeon I am used to having a team of people supporting my activities. You may find this hard to believe (or not), but I have quite a few colleagues who have a touch of the “God” complex who think the world revolves around them. Although I do think that my training and skills are important, there is no surgeon who can care for, and operate on patients without the assistance of hundreds of other people. Clerical staff, nurses and anesthesiologists, to name a few, all play a vital role in getting a patient from the clinic to the OR and then quickly and safely home. In the startup world, by necessity, I am running as lean as possible (please refer to previous comments regarding my children’s education fund), which means as few paid people as can achieve our near-term goals. However, I clearly see that to achieve long-term goals, additional people will be necessary.

More importantly, the concept of a team in the OR is something that I am keenly aware of when working as a startup CEO. Unfortunately, I have been involved in OR situations where the team was not working well together, and this inevitably leads to longer, less efficient and often less effective care. It is critical to find the right team with a clear understanding of the values and goals of the company.

The work world for a surgeon is fairly predictable. During the week, the demands can be categorized into areas that the surgeon has been trained to deal with, such as office assessment of patients, teaching, clinical research and days in the OR. However, as a CEO of a startup, on any given day there may be work demands that have no relationship to any of my past experiences and training. Because this is sometimes new territory, seeking out guidance and mentorship has been particularly important.

The surgical world is very hierarchical and for many surgeons it is difficult to acknowledge and admit that there are gaps in experience and abilities. Although there is a hierarchy in the startup world, it has very little to do with how long you have been working at it and more to do with what kind of results you have achieved. In the startup world, it is not unusual for me to get advice from more “experienced” entrepreneurs who are younger than my children.

So, is there a crossover in surgeon skills and startup skills? Good startup CEO’s have to cultivate and hone their skills over time and occasionally the successful strategies I’ve learned as a surgeon might not translate well. Despite that, there are traits that are similar between the successful surgeon and startup CEO. These traits are the tenacity to complete the task, the ability to work with a strong team, the lack of ego and the ability to accept and implement advice that will make the company successful.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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