Ryan Littman-Quinn – mHealth and the Botswana-UPenn Partnership (Podcast #3)

– Ryan O’Keefe, MS2 – 

My discussion with Ryan Littman-Quinn closely followed my conversation with Dr. Kovarik. The two have worked together on many projects, and yet I was able to take away many different lessons from this discussion.

First, a quick background on Ryan. He went to Boston College for undergrad where he studied business with a minor in philosophy. He found himself interested in advertising and marketing. Not wanting to go down a path already traversed, he turned down traditional marketing positions and reached out to the start-up Click Diagnostics, and was able to convince them that he could help them with their logo design, among other marketing tasks.

From there, he was able to pivot to global health work within the company, and took a risk by moving to Africa to learn more about mHealth. His early work and the lessons he learned helped make him one of the go-to mHealth experts in global health, leading him to work with the Botswana-UPenn partnership. Currently, he is able to balance this work with another company, Peak Vision, which is leveraging mHealth software and hardware to bring much needed vision care to underserved communities.

Some of the major takeaways:

1.) You need to make clear the value you will bring to a company or project

It’s not unusual for someone to cold call trying to get a job. What’s rare, though, is actually landing that job. Ryan was able to successfully impress Click Diagnostics because he was able to demonstrate his value and skills by framing them in terms of what Click Diagnostics needed. Dale Carnegie in his famous book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”  says that you must “talk in terms of the other person’s interest.” It shows guts and that you’ve taken an interest in the company by knowing what they are currently doing well, and how they can improve.

2.)It takes luck and good timing to be an expert in an up-and-coming field, but also hard work, and some risks

Though Ryan’s skills were mostly in marketing, he was given a rare opportunity to go abroad and develop a newer skill set. It would have been easy for him to stick with what he knew, but he saw that mHealth was a new and exciting field that he wanted to learn more about. It helps that he was young and free to travel without feeling tied down to any one place. Once you’re on the medical path – either in school or residency, it may seem impossible to pick up and try something completely new like this. I fervently disagree!

Med school is probably the very best time to go abroad or learn a new skill set. It may feel like your days are too busy, but if you pursue clinical practice, they certainly won’t free up any time soon. Also keep in mind that opportunities will often come your way once you become established – but taking a chance on something new isn’t always easy. Check out the episode with Dr. Debbie Kelly  for another great example of this. I’m sure when Ryan first googled Botswana and told himself he could make it there, he didn’t foresee himself becoming the “mHealth guy”. Yet here he is.

3.) Being in expert in a field will bring with it lots of great opportunities, but also a lot of “unsexy” work

It’s a fallacy we all fall for – detectives on Law and Order solve intriguing murder cases, doctors on Grey’s Anatomy average 3 saved-lives per hour, Dr. House gets to tackle the most challenging medical mysteries the human body has ever presented. Further, it’s easy to believe that by working with Peak Vision and the Botswana-UPenn partnership, Ryan’s days are full of meaningful patient interactions, and he can hit the pillow at night, knowing he has brought vision to thousands of people in need.

While the job can certainly be fulfilling, it’s important to always remember to pull back the curtain and see the “unsexy” side of things. Developing and overseeing mHealth projects includes a lot of planning, desk work, emails, and inevitable crisis management when your mobile devices bum-out on launch-day.  It’s a good lesson for any line of work – especially clinical practice. You may have heard the sentiment that you need to be able to handle the monotony of any clinical field, because that’s what you’ll likely be dealing with most of your time. It’s no different for every other type of job.

4.) A medical education is a launching point, but it certainly can’t prepare you for everything

One of the many reasons why we wanted to start Penn Health-X, the podcast, and this blog is that while medical education prepares us to be excellent researchers and clinicians – and more recently how to work on teams and be humane healers – it doesn’t teach us business skills, principles of management, and about various cultures across the globe. Ryan insisted that no matter how much you learn in the classroom, you will never be fully ready to start an mHealth project in an unfamiliar country.

Though this can be unsettling, the beauty is that you learn on the job. Only through putting yourself out there and jumping with both feet can you grow and develop particular skill sets. Learning in the classroom is crucial for laying a foundation of knowledge, but I am especially guilty of using it as a crutch – after all, it’ comfortable to sit in a lecture room and digest material at your own pace, and far more uneasy to be grilled by an attending in the wards, and having to talk to patients face to face. Yet the clinical year, and the first year of residency are unanimously considered the years where you truly start to become a doctor and not just a roided-up biology major. The value in ideas and knowledge is in using them (thanks Thomas Edison, probably..) – so get out there and show us what you’ve got!

– Ryan is a second year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine. He is the co-VP of curriculum for Penn Health-X, the co-host of the Penn Health-X podcast, and founder/editor-in-chief of the Penn Health-X blog. You can contact him at ryan.o’keefe@uphs.upenn.edu –

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