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Penn HealthX Aims to Expand the Conversation Beyond Boundaries in Medicine

When the news broke two weeks ago of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a gene therapy for the treatment of a rare, inherited form of retinal blindness, some medical students at Penn had an insider’s view into the process—for multiple reasons. Not only was the therapy initially developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), but a medical student group at the Perelman School of Medicine called Penn HealthX had, over the last year, hosted in-depth conversations with several of the key players in the business of bringing that scientific discovery to the marketplace.

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Penn medical student Ryan O’Keefe (right) interviewed fellow students and founders of SpectrumScores (L-R) Phil Williams, Naveen Jain, and Jun Jeon, on the Penn HealthX podcast.

In particular, those conversations were about the business. Penn HealthX focuses on entrepreneurship, innovation, and management in medicine, offering support for medical student innovators and entrepreneurs and hosting a variety of guest speakers to talk about their careers and the changing landscape of health care. With the launch of a podcast and blog in 2017, Penn HealthX is beginning to expand the reach of these conversations. 

For example, the president of the Philadelphia biotechnology company that received the FDA approval to market the new gene therapy, Katherine A. High, MD, was one of the featured speakers at the Penn HealthX annual conference last month, organized by medical student Clayton Parker. High, who was formerly director of CHOP’s Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics and a professor of Pediatrics at Penn, became president of Spark Therapeutics when that company spun out from CHOP in 2013.

In addition to the annual conference, the Penn HealthX seminar speaker series invites 10 to 15 speakers to campus per year, many of them Penn Med alumni and people otherwise connected with the Penn community who work at intersection of business, medicine, and policy, to talk about their careers and projects. “The emphasis is to give students an understanding of the many ways you can use your MD degree outside of strictly clinical medicine,” said Ryan O’Keefe, a second-year medical student who has been a VP of Curriculum for Penn HealthX over the past year, a role that involves organizing this speaker series.

One of those speakers this year gave attendees another viewpoint into gene therapy for blindness. Debbie Kelly, MD, Spark’s head of pharmacovigilance (drug safety), was also one of the first guests to appear on the Penn HealthX podcast, which O’Keefe spearheaded and hosts. Kelly talked about her career path, working in clinical medicine for 11 years as an ophthalmologist and then learning about opportunities to apply her medical knowledge in different types of roles in the pharmaceutical industry.

On the podcast, she recalled one of her first conversations with a pharmaceutical industry contact, that led to her first position in clinical development: “He really explained to me that if you’re taking care of patients, you can take care of an ‘N’ number patients because you are one person and you only have a finite amount time in your day,” she said. “If you go into clinical development, and you work on developing medicines, you’re going to have a geometric magnitude more ‘N’ of patients that you can help.”

A similar principle — taking the individual impact of a face-to-face interaction, and expanding it at scale — is also at work within the Penn HealthX student organization itself. The group was founded in 2013 by a group of three medical students who have since graduated. Over a span of less than five years, that initial group and other medical student leaders have built up a multifaceted program that includes not only events like the speaker series and annual conference and hands-on workshops, but also funding opportunities that empower medical students to get started on their own entrepreneurial and innovative ventures. These funding programs are available for both student-led startup programs and for medical student internships in areas of entrepreneurial interest. (Vidya Viswanathan, a third-year medical student who was featured in Penn Medicine magazine earlier this year for her website Doctors Who Create, received one of these internships to expand the site.)

In addition, Penn HealthX hosts an incubator program called HealthX Labs to bring together teams of students from across the university to form ideas for startups and develop prototypes to solve problems in health care. One of the projects this year, a website called SpectrumScores to help LGBTQ+ patients find health care providers, went on to win the “Audience Choice” award at a national healthcare startup competition.

The Penn HealthX team recently surveyed Penn medical students, and about 45 percent of the entire student population (351 students) responded. Of these, 79 percent said they had attended at least one Penn HealthX event. More than one in five said their choice to attend the Perelman School of Medicine was influenced by the existence of Penn HealthX. Only a few other medical schools have anything quite like it.

That’s where newer initiatives like the podcast, which expands the conversation beyond Penn’s campus, came into play. At the beginning of this year, O’Keefe recalled, he and the other student leaders of Penn HealthX had a meeting with their advisory board. That group includes Roderick Wong, MD, a Penn Med alum who is the managing partner of RTW Investments LLC, a healthcare investment firm in New York, and a financial supporter of Penn HealthX, and David Asch, MD, MBA, executive director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, who has been a faculty advisor to Penn HealthX from its start, among others.

Asch encouraged them to think about finding ways to expand Penn HealthX to connect with other medical schools and wider audiences who might be interested in the conversations they host and the ideas they spark for innovation in health care. He cited the management principle called Joy’s law — that, no matter where you work, some of the best people still work elsewhere — which means that openness and collaboration yield great benefits.

“We need to be far more inclusive and engaging in our approaches so that we have the best minds working,” Asch said. “We have incredibly good medical students at Penn, and there are also great medical students elsewhere. So, the more Penn students lead by example and the more they reveal their activities, the more we inspire and engage others.”

O’Keefe, a self-described “podcast fiend,” took that encouragement as inspiration to launch the Penn HealthX podcast. More than a dozen episodes are now live, featuring extended conversations with a mix of established medical professionals, medical students such as the founders of SpectrumScores, and medical entrepreneurs of all stripes. A new interview with Arthur Rubenstein, MBBCh, former dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, is the first released episode of several in the queue featuring senior leaders at Penn Medicine.

“It was an opportunity with all these brilliant minds shaping industry coming to speak here, when only students at Penn were hearing their perspectives, to use the podcast to expand the reach of what we were doing,” said Logan Brock, who is co-VP of Curriculum for Penn HealthX with O’Keefe. Brock partnered with him on the project, co-hosted some episodes, and took the lead on the Penn HealthX blog, which provides quick-hit summaries of the podcast’s longer conversations.

For O’Keefe, the crux of these conversations is about breaking down boundaries — not just between Penn and the outside world, but between artificial distinctions in the way people think about different disciplines. He also highlights the fact that Penn is a hub that truly supports multidisciplinary collaboration, including with other programs such as Penn Health-Tech. Disciplinary boundaries, he said, limit people’s thinking, and the conversations hosted by Penn HealthX on campus and on the podcast can challenge those assumptions: “Why would a doctor be involved in business? Why would a doctor be involved in engineering? Why would somebody who is just a researcher want to get involved with taking a product to market?”

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