When medical students Eliza van Wulfften Palthe, Alice Leung and Alvaro Prados Carmona arrived for Elsevier’s Helsinki hackathon back in 2017, they had a single task: “Change the face of medical education.” The aim was for them to draw on their experience, couple it with some innovation and ingenuity, and pair it with Elsevier’s content and technological expertise to solve a major challenge for medical students around the world – all in a weekend.
Now, following an incubation program organized by Elsevier, the idea those students contributed will be integrated into the ClinicalKey Student experience.
At the hackathon, the team focused on an issue faced by nearly all medical students. One of the toughest parts of medical training is making the leap from training to practice: it’s one thing to understand the science and technology of being a doctor, but another to meet a real patient and understand what’s happening in front of you. Eliza, a student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands explained:
A large majority of students witness the essential decision-making process needed to help patients, but few are given the autonomy to make their own decisions in terms of ordering investigations and deciding on a diagnosis. When they graduate and are working as a doctor, they’re expected to gain those skills overnight.
‘It’s difficult at first to hear that your idea needs a rethink’
The first iteration of the team’s idea, which was among the winning entries at the hackathon, functioned as a kind of “reverse chatbot” called Patient X, which used layman’s language to prompt the user to ask questions and arrive at a diagnosis. Of course, as is usually the case with prototypes, the concept needed to be refined: Jen Lucas, the product manager who worked with the team, explained:
With ClinicalKey Student, we’d been looking at ideas that would help medical students prepare for the transition to practice, which we understand can be quite jarring, and this was exactly the same challenge the team had been working on in the hackathon. We didn’t want to just bring Patient X straight to market because, after all, it was built in the context of a 48-hour hackathon and independent of any other Elsevier platform.
Instead, the team behind Patient X joined Elsevier as product innovation advisors who would work with Elsevier’s developers to do market research, build the basic business idea, bring a prototype to market, and test it with users. The result will also draw on Elsevier’s assessment and remediation technology so students can identify the areas they’re weakest in and get signposted access to content that will help them improve. The final version will operate as a module in Elsevier’s ClinicalKey Student platform.
Alvaro, a medical student at the University of Córdoba who led his Patient X teammates through the incubation, said that being open to a rethink is an important step for anyone – although not an easy one to take:
It’s difficult at first to hear that your original idea needs a rethink. You start looking for reasons to explain what was wrong with your research methodology because you’re not willing to accept that your idea is not flawless from the beginning. But, of course, no idea is. We had many rounds of contacts and had to redefine some aspects several times, rescheduling our priorities according to the inputs from the market and experts like Jen.
Once you realize that evolving is exactly the way forward, everything progressively falls into place, and for me the possibility to adapt our idea to be coherently integrated in such a learning environment was incredibly encouraging.
‘Know your market’
David Game, Education eProduct Director at Elsevier, saw the team’s willingness to listen as key to their success:
In the first session we had, we explained that we weren’t going to do a release, and the team understood 100 percent. That maturity was really inspiring to see – they were very open to a new approach, and to respond to feedback from the market.
That was something that resonated with the team, as Alvaro explained: “I think the best advice I can give anyone is to know your market,” he said. “Identify your ‘added value,’ what makes you different from other solutions and what you can offer to face the market’s challenge more effectively. Do not try to solve every single aspect of the problem at once; focus on your key feature while always listening to your user.”
Indeed, it was listening to the market that gave the team the confidence to step away from their initial idea and focus instead on the best way to solve the problem. Eliza elaborated:
When we did our market research, we discovered that all the fancy AI technology in the chatbot wasn’t needed. We could solve the problem we set out to solve in a different way. That gave us confidence that a different solution would still be a good one.
As Jen explained, that market understanding – the real insight into what medical students need and how they work – is essential to product development of any kind and can stop project teams from getting distracted simply by what’s possible with technology:
There are a million patents out there for a million great technical ideas, but often they don’t solve the problem that people genuinely have. Contact with the market at every step is so important – it means you keep refining it. The PatientX team have gotten so good at that – of course it helps that they’re medical students themselves – but I think they’re going to continue to evolve in that aspect as we shift from the elaboration phase into building something. For us, it’s extremely useful to have that input and insight – you can’t build a successful product if you don’t have your finger on the pulse of what the user needs.
David agreed, pointing out that even when two products take a similar approach to solving the same problem, it’s the understanding of the end user that makes the difference:
We can never be a 23-year-old medical student in Spain like Alvaro, but the insights we get from his thoughts, experiences, and research will hopefully help us make medical students’ lives easier, which is the whole point of this – so they can help patients better. We’ll be able to do that by creating something that is really powered by an understanding of what they need.
For Eliza and Alvaro, being on that journey and seeing an idea that began two years ago become a commercial reality has been an emotional experience.
“It is really, really exciting,” Alvaro said. “In the end, bringing the idea to the market is what all of this is about, and nothing can be done without properly creating the product. The innovation process is complex, of course, but it represents also a constant opportunity to approach our field from a new perspective.”
Eliza agreed, saying: “We’ll go on to actually solve the problem we identified, and it just feels really good. After all the times I've thought to myself about the studying process, ‘This could be so much better,’ instead of just complaining, I can hopefully do something about it. And it’s especially cool to work with a company that my university works with. I've used Elsevier solutions in the past, and maybe I’ll even get to use my own tuition tool from Elsevier. That's just an amazing thing to do.”