Tyrannosaurus MUSC Rex?

March 02, 2021
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Wooly mammoth skeleton on displayIn Life After COVID-19, I pointed out that the explosion of digital technologies, spurred on by the ongoing pandemic, is reshaping our lives at a breathtaking pace. These winds of change have exposed the urgent fact that we need to adapt, grow, and evolve. The question is: are we in a position to successfully meet the future, or will we become an academic health system relic: Tyrannosaurus MUSC Rex? (By the way, we already have a state fossil, the Columbian Mammoth, and it doesn’t look like it needs competition on the podium).

These are uncomfortable thoughts that raise many questions. However, when I find myself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. worrying about the future of health care, I center myself on two facts that are essential to us as an academic health system:

  1. We will always need excellent, forward leaning health care providers.

  2. Right now we have at our fingertips more tools capable of transforming health than in the history of mankind. Wow! Welcome to the future!

So, if we respond appropriately, the question is really not about survival, but rather how we get on the fast track for this particular transformation train.

Getting back to T-Rex, following the cataclysmic extinction of dinosaurs, mammals arose and filled the ecologic void to become (and currently remain) the dominant form of life. How did mammals do this? The short answer from Scientific American is that early mammals developed “an array of specializations and evolutionary innovations, making them adept at taking advantage of a variety of ecosystem niches.” What does that mean? They developed new skills that gave them a competitive edge over other forms of life. They learned to climb, glide, swim, use their teeth to process available foods, and their growth patterns enhanced survival of their young (read that as lots of offspring).

What skills do we need to hone or develop to be able to succeed and thrive in the new digital age? Three evolutionary first steps for us include:

  1. Flip the script to empower our patients and families. Always seek to understand the true needs of our patients and their families – think health, high reliability, and the domains of quality: safe, effective, efficient, equitable, patient-centered, and timely.
  2. Use the technology, don’t let it use us. Study, understand, and apply the potential of digital tools, such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and big data. These tools will change the constraints under which we have cared for patients, conducted research or educated our students. Find what works, but don’t necessarily chase after the newest shiny object if it’s not the right fit.
  3. Break out of the box. Change the status quo and use these digital tools to solve our patients, scientists, and students’ needs. Take on the mantra of nothing ventured is nothing gained and work as a positive, disruptive force for change that creates a lasting impact.

We still have a lot to learn about how the pandemic’s intersection with our society’s digital transformation will affect all aspects of life in the long term, but I do know this: the signs of major, long-lasting change are already among us if you just look. Telemedicine means maybe you don’t need to drive three hours each way to wait an hour for a 15 minute doctor’s appointment. New technologies make bench to bedside breakthroughs possible at the speed of light; COVID-19 vaccines, anyone? Digital tools and remote learning are shaking the foundational norms in higher education – why fall asleep in lecture when you can stream the relevant content at twice the speed?

When the pandemic is “over,” so many issues plaguing our industry will remain. Some will choose to continue on much as before, or rail against change. These modern dinosaurs will likely fade into history like their predecessors. I don’t worry for MUSC, however, and here’s why: we were already evolving to pace with digital transformation before the pandemic. In just one of numerous examples across the enterprise, our national and statewide leadership in telehealth development, evaluation, and outreach positions us to be like this guy here:

Cartoon of Tyrannosaurus Rex holding reacher grabber tools in both claws with a caption that reads Unstoppable

Of course, we aren’t there yet, and we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. But, with the right tools, the right mindset, and the ability to understand and adapt to the drastic forces of change around us, we will be unstoppable.

About the Author

David J. Cole
MUSC President
M.D., FACS