Why I Left Clinical Practice and Headed To Kendall Square

As the son and grandson of physicians, I rarely wondered what I would do when I “grew up.” Like many budding physicians, I spent the vast majority of my formative years pursuing a life in medicine, eventually settling on a career as an academic surgeon. I took no more than a summer away from school or clinical training, and even those precious months were spent conducting clinical research.

So you can imagine my surprise when, as a surgical resident at Columbia University Medical Center, I decided to diverge from the well-trod career path ahead of me and set out on a journey that would take me through the halls of the US Senate and lead to the start-up scene in Kendall Square.

Dr. Joseph Shonkwiler

Dr. Joseph Shonkwiler

It was toward the end of medical school that I began to ask questions about the forces that shape the US healthcare system. I saw how much of the work we did in the hospital was reactive care, and I developed a healthy skepticism toward the system that incentivized it. Being acutely aware of the limitations of a single patient/physician interaction, I also wondered how a system could be developed to empower patients and their families to take a more active role in their own healthcare.

Although the demands of clinical practice left little time to consider these types of questions, I could not stop thinking that there must be other, better ways to address the significant needs of our patients.

In my quest for answers, I took time away from training go back to school and get my masters in public policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, after which point I made the very difficult decision to forgo my final two years of surgical training and instead work as the senior health policy advisor to Senator Rob Portman. This was Spring 2012 and the debate about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was at its height.

As a health policy advisor in the Senate I had the opportunity to impact patient care on a much larger scale than during my time as a surgical resident; however, I saw much of the same reactive culture that frustrated me about clinical medicine and a legislative system that was perpetuating much of the inefficiency inherent in our current health system.

It was while working in the Senate that I realized the healthcare solutions I sought were not rooted in clinical practice or policy; they were rooted in entrepreneurship and innovation.

I first bore witness to the digital revolution taking hold in medicine while working with entrepreneurs in Ohio, and I was blown away by the innovative technology and complex data analysis they were leveraging to solve major problems in healthcare. I realized that new technologies had the potential to dramatically shift the paradigm in medicine and change the way care was delivered, potentially on a very large scale.

With the goal of using mobile technology to address a large-scale healthcare problem, I left the Senate to pursue an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Boston is a hub of health tech startups and world-class engineering, and during my nearly two years at MIT I have sought to immerse myself in the world of those working for change through health technology. In 2015 I joined Cambridge-based venture “foundry” Redstar Ventures as a summer associate and gained firsthand experience evaluating new markets for emerging businesses. I was particularly interested in markets pertaining to the rapidly aging US population, especially the often-overlooked legion of unpaid caregivers supporting many US seniors.

There is a wide variety of care available for seniors, but these services are fragmented and can leave patients and their caregivers feeling lost. I began working with Redstar to develop a technology-enabled support service for the tens of millions of those caregivers spread all across the country. My hope is that this technology will empower patients and families to take a leadership role in their own healthcare, and foster a more proactive system that keeps people healthier and out of costly care settings.

Many fellow physicians have sought my advice on how to broaden their own experience and branch out from traditional clinical career paths. I have encouraged each of them to pursue the parts of medicine they are most passionate about and not to worry if they decide a purely clinical career is not for them. If nothing else, my itinerant journey has taught me that in today’s rapid changing healthcare landscape, there are myriad ways to serve patients and reimagine the caregiving process.

Joseph Shonkwiler

Joseph Shonkwiler

    Joseph Shonkwiler is a physician with extensive experience in health policy and clinical research. He is currently an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management focusing on entrepreneurship, innovation, and venture financing.

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