October 24, 2019

Mark Cohen, MD, FACS: Thinking ahead

Path of Excellence gives students opportunity to unleash their inner innovator.

Mark S. Cohen, MD, FACS is currently Professor of Surgery and Pharmacology, Director of Endocrine Surgery Research, Vice Chair of Clinical Operations in the Department of Surgery and Director of the Michigan Surgical Innovation Prize Fund. He is also one of several Michigan Medicine faculty who lead our Paths of Excellence, co-curricular opportunities that offer med students a deeper dive into eight different specialized areas of health care. Approximately 80-90% of our M1 students join a Path of Excellence each year. Dr. Cohen is the founding director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Path of Excellence. Here, he answers 10 questions about his Path and how med students can create meaningful change and improve care for patients.  

Why did you first become involved with the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Path of Excellence?

As a clinician, innovator and entrepreneur who went through this process mid-career and learned many important lessons along the way, I felt providing creative passionate medical students early in their careers these important innovation skills and tools would create a unique group of medical innovators and future leaders in health care who will create lasting change.

I have been involved in the Path since its inception in 2015. I've worked with medical students since that time to create this novel Path of Excellence in Innovation & Entrepreneurship (the only one of its kind in the world for medical students) so that students can more fully explore their interests in solving real medical problems with impactful innovative solutions that will advance the field of medicine and improve the care of their patients.

What is your role now as director of the I&E Path?

My role is to help students achieve their goals and potential in developing their ideas and creative solutions to medical problems. This involves educating students in this domain and providing them with a toolbox of resources to help them navigate this space more effectively, mentoring them on their ideas and projects, and helping them build meaningful networks with peers, faculty and innovation leaders both locally and nationally, including health care industry leaders, venture capital experts and successful physician entrepreneurs.

What appealed to you in taking on this role?

The ability to work with so many incredibly talented, diverse and compassionate students who really want to make a difference for patients and advance health care with their ideas makes my role incredibly rewarding, inspiring and most of all FUN. Watching their inspiration develop and their ideas accelerate forward toward real impact for patients is very meaningful and humbling.

How does your background/current work inform the direction of this Path?

As a surgeon, educator and NIH-funded translational researcher, I have spun out my ideas to form start-up companies in cancer drug-development, medical devices and even digital health care. These experiences have taught me many critical lessons about navigating the innovation and entrepreneurial space, as well as how to avoid pitfalls in commercializing your ideas, that I have been able to pass on to my students.

Additionally the rich network of medical colleagues, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and venture investors I have developed over the years has really helped me connect students with key mentors and resources that have allowed their ideas to move forward more efficiently. Understanding firsthand the challenges of developing innovative technologies and solutions in an ever-changing academic medical center environment helps shape the content of what students learn in this Path and allows them to more nimbly navigate their ideas through this complex landscape.

Why is it important to include Innovation & Entrepreneurship as a Path of Excellence option?

Medical technology is changing so rapidly today that physicians need to be trained in how to adapt and utilize new technologies in their practice as well as how to better solve problems in medicine through iterative design thinking. In the current medical environment, having a great idea on how to solve a problem in medicine is not enough.

Physicians also need the skills to communicate and advance their ideas and solutions to elicit change and adoption in the health care system. The Innovation & Entrepreneurship Path of Excellence therefore is a much-needed option for students as it provides them with the tools and experience to critically evaluate problems in medicine and create high value solutions and compelling rationales for moving those ideas forward toward a positive impact for patient care.

How would characterize the med students who gravitate to the I&E Path?

We have now had over four years about 100 medical students interact with the I&E Path, and all of their stories are different. They come from different backgrounds, different experiences and all have different interests. What brings them to the I&E Path is really their desire to make a real difference in medicine for patients, and to develop impactful solutions to problems they see or want to tackle in the medical field.

Everyone that comes into the Path learns about their own inner creativity and how to channel it toward thoughtfully developing solutions to real medical problems. They learn about teamwork, leadership, and creating networks and relationships, and how to evaluate medical problems from multiple lenses of view. Our students come with a passion to create meaningful change and impact in medicine and leave with the skillset to make that happen in a more tangible way that they can use throughout their careers.

What do you see is your overall purpose/mission when it comes to shaping future physician leaders?

The I&E Path’s mission is to create meaningful educational opportunities that develop creative physician-innovators who can have significant impact on the future of patient care. In just four years, some students have started their own companies that now have functional products in use in several countries around the world. Others have taken on leadership roles on teams and have used this added expertise they gained from the Path to pursue dual degrees in business (MD/MBA), or to set themselves apart from other applicants during residency interviews to get into top programs and develop new innovations at those institutions after medical school. In short, the Path is creating a vital group of physician innovators who will become leaders in medicine.

What do you like about working with med students?

There are so many things I really enjoy working with the students. Their creativity, their dedication and sincere interest in making a difference. Their enthusiasm for moving ideas forward and putting their best effort into creating the best solution that will have the biggest impact for patients. They are inspiring, intelligent, and most of all thoughtful about their innovations, and it is my job and a privilege to help them unlock and grow their talents in this area and be as successful as they can be.

What do you like to do outside of the med school?

I enjoy spending time with my family, traveling, playing golf, bowling, playing the trumpet, singing in a choir, consulting on innovation projects and technologies, writing, and being part of surgical missions in developing countries.

What is your advice to a student who is considering whether or not to pursue a Path of Excellence in med school?

While a standard medical school education prepares students for become caring and highly competent physicians, the Paths of Excellence provide students with a vital outlet to explore their passions in medicine and see how these can be developed further and incorporated into their future careers. It gives them the opportunity to pursue areas of medicine that inspire them and allow them to develop additional skills, leadership opportunities, and self-reflection that will make them even more impactful at what they can accomplish in medicine.