Innovative Collaboration Can Make Medical School Better

By Nathan Ratner | Published 10/26/2017 1

Medical school collaboration

This August, along with 19 other medical students, I participated in Elsevier Hacks, a two-day “hackathon for medical education,” in Helsinki, Finland, that coincided with the Association of Medical Educators Conference.

The participants were selected from among more than 1,500 applicants from all over the world. We were given the opportunity to build solutions that solve challenges in medical education. During the 48-hour event, we were teamed with innovators in coding and design to build solutions to solve challenges we face in medical education

The winning team, comprised of medical students from Australia, The Netherlands, and Spain, created a case-based solution that allows medical students to practice clinical reasoning and receive feedback with chatbot technology, enabling them to improve their diagnostic process at an early stage

Medical students from Australia, Germany, Brazil, and the UK placed second, developing an interactive game they called “Dr. You,” which uses competitive gamification to hone students’ clinical knowledge and decision-making skills by providing succinct real-life scenarios for students to complete.

My team took third-place honors for a toolset enabling medical students to translate any medical content from lecture presentations, textbooks, or 3D models into a dynamic study resource.

Innovation like that on display at Elsevier Hacks is exciting. The only limit to the solutions that we could develop was our own imaginations, which were expanded by the cross-pollination of disciplines.

Comprehensive collaboration is needed

Through this experience, I learned important lessons about collaboration, technology, and the process of innovation that I believe can contribute to the success and vitality of medical education.

The American medical education system continues to produce some of the best-trained physicians in the world, but there are critical issues that must be addressed. And while some of these are outside classroom or clinical work, they’re no less worthy of attention or innovation.

By embracing innovation, together we can work to find solutions to the challenges we’ll face not only while we’re in medical school, but after we become practicing physicians.

As technology and scientific breakthroughs (artificial intelligence, precision medicine, and patient-driven data) are defining not only healthcare, but the medical school experience itself, it’s time for a new approach.

In seeking inspiration and example, we should look to the past. Abraham Flexner, the author of the historic report, “Medical Education in the United States and Canada,” changed the way future doctors like me are taught. Flexner’s project was undertaken in a time when technological and scientific advancements were fundamentally reshaping society, much as they are today.

Funded by the Carnegie Foundation, Flexner’s 1910 report “transformed the nature and process of medical education in America” and led to “the establishment of the biomedical model as the gold standard of medical training,” according to a Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine article, “The Flexner Report – 100 Years Later.”

This being the 21st Century, issuing a “report” about medical school education seems about as relevant as bloodletting or phrenology. However, I see profound possibility in a nationwide Flexnerian summit, convening a wide range of stakeholders, many from outside traditional medicine, to contribute their talent, discipline, and insight to preparing medical education for the age of digital, cloud-based data.

As a third-year medical student, I am excited by the thought of bringing together medical school educators, medical students, business, technology, marketing experts, and, of course, patients to explore new ideas for creating an individualized and compelling medical school education experience.

A “data-driven discussion” on medical education

We’ve seen this idea in practice in other areas of education. Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted the “Choose to Excel Summit” in El Paso, Texas, where business, civic, and education leaders had commissioned a study to see where the region stood in its ability to reach meet the goals set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in its 60x30TX plan. 60x30TX’s main objective was to increase the number of Texans holding a higher education degree or certificate by 2030.

The “Choose to Excel Summit” assembled business and community leaders, educators, educator trainers, and charter management organizations from around the nation to, as Gates Foundation Deputy Director Don Shalvey described, “begin a data-driven discussion about how we can move the education needle forward.”

But some might ask “Is it worth the effort?” My response would be “What is the cost of not doing this?

In seeking to answer that question further, I would look not to any scientist or inventor, but to an innovator of another sort—the former chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, who once said,

There’s no good idea that cannot be improved on.

A recent National Center for Biotechnology Information report, “Engaging Learners to Advance Medical Education,” described medical students like me and my Elsevier Hacks colleagues as “a pillar of academic medicine,” while it lamented that “their voice is seldom heard in national and international scholarly conversations on medical education.”

In Helsinki, I’ve seen what assembling medical students with others possessing a diversity of skills, knowledge, and experience could do to “move the needle forward” in medical school education in just 48 hours. Imagine what an investment in more time and resources would do. I’d bet it would yield results that would make even Abraham Flexner proud.

Nathan Ratner


Nathan Ratner is a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota. He and his team placed third in the 2017 Elsevier Hacks competition.


  • This is exactly the premise behind – data driven, self evaluation that promotes life-long learning in the next generation of our workforce.

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