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Business lessons from a medical entrepreneur: How being a doctor prepared me for launching a start-up

Think medicine and starting a business aren't similar? Think again, says Dr Sam Bailey of SwiftMed.

Top image: Dr Sam Bailey

From the age of 10, all I wanted to be was a doctor. I pursued that dream relentlessly. I took the right classes at school, studied hard, made sacrifices and, ultimately, got accepted into medical school.

But by the time I reached graduation, my career path - the one I had envisaged as a 10-year-old - had changed. The reality of working as a doctor was quite different to my dream. Sure, the salary was good and I could choose my hours, but the work felt too much like painting by numbers. It was methodical and predictable and I was craving something more exciting.

So after four years of playing it safe and putting my medical degree to work as a GP, I changed tack and started a business as a medical entrepreneur. It has been a crazy adventure, full of surprises. Not the least of which is how much my medical degree helped to prepare me for the business world.

Here are the ways my medical degree helped me on my entrepreneurial journey.

1. Clinical task management

It was surprising how resourceful my classmates were in medical school. Students develop efficient systems to learn and retain the tidal wave of information. Once you start work as a doctor, you have to plan to get through the number of patients each day as efficiently as possible. Specifically, I learnt how to structure the day, which patients to visit, when to do paperwork, creating lists of jobs, and having a tidy appointment book. These skills crossover to running a successful business. You need to set-up and navigate systems and set realistic goals that guide you on your journey. You should create a work schedule for yourself and your employees with clear, manageable tasks. This not only helps you with time management, it also allows you to have small victories throughout the day by checking items off your schedule. Knowing that I had the ability to be organised made the complexities of business less intimidating.

2. Diagnosing (and solving) problems

Doctors use problem-solving techniques daily, especially since the solution to a patient’s illness or ailment is never one-size-fits-all. It can take time and trial and error to prescribe the correct medication. Doctors have a method to solving problems which includes identifying the problem, describing the cause, researching and thinking about a remedy, implementing one treatment and monitoring the effects. They also need to do this decisively and quickly, or the outcome can be serious. These same techniques can be applied when running a business. You need to make sure you identify problems quickly and come up with creative solutions. Choosing to do nothing is a decision, but may lead to missing an opportunity. Obviously, business decisions are rarely a matter of life and death (unlike medical decisions). Therefore I found I had developed the ability to be decisive. I like to weigh-up whether indecisiveness is due to the fear of making the wrong decision, or whether I need more information to help make a decision. More often than not, it’s the former.

3. Interpersonal communication

When it comes to working in health, a doctor has to interact with people from all walks of life. You are expected to give talks on medical subjects throughout your training, and be grilled about wrong answers by senior experts in the field. When I worked in the emergency department my first patient of the day could be a politician and the next an IV drug user. Being able to communicate with anybody was key to getting the work done and helped me understand people better. To succeed in business you need to be able to get your point across and clearly explain company policies to customers and negotiate deals. Also, effective communication with staff can foster a good working relationship that improves morale and efficiency. Breaking bad news to patients was another hard part of being a doctor, but is a skill I use when talking to customers and helps in the running of any business.

4. Dealing with uncertainty

The question of whether medicine is an art or a science is something I only understood after working for a while. Doctors are plagued with uncertainty in their job and try to make sense of it with guidelines and pathways. Business leaders also find great discomfort in uncertainty and tend to focus on the short-term goals because it is too hard to create a five to ten-year plan. Uncertainty leads to inaction in both medicine and business. Strategies I use to deal with uncertainty include preparing for multiple outcomes, finding and relying on predictable elements of the situation, and focusing on being honest and doing the right thing for my customers, employees and shareholders.

And the ways my medical degree did not help me...

4. Sales & marketing

The sad truth of mainstream medicine is that you barely need to advertise as a doctor or know anything about marketing – especially in the public sector. Subsidised patients line up at the door and the numbers are too many to get through each day. However in real-world business, marketing is essential to drive customers to you, and sales keep everything afloat. Simple tips like marketing the business before it’s ready, listening to what your customers actually want and testing to measure the results are essential to achieving success in business. Finding leads for a business is much harder than people imagine and the biggest hurdle I’ve had to overcome is learning how to sell, rinse and repeat.

5. Finance and accounting

Despite most doctors being good at maths, they are terrible at racking up debt. Many spend their earnings without planning for the future, or put their blinkers on and ignore their accountant’s advice. The lifeblood of any business enterprise is cash flow and becoming a wise money manager will get the bills paid. Basic tips like making sure there is little or no gap between when you pay for labour or stock inventory and when you get paid aren’t taught in medical school. Also, it’s important to find ways to keep costs down through research and be smart about which suppliers you use. Accounting 101, like forecasting cash flow and sales, as well as monitoring profit and loss was not part of the medical curriculum.

My medical degree taught me so much about science, but it also set me up surprisingly well for running a business. The most invaluable part was learning how to communicate with a wide range of people. In my experience, that’s one of the most important skills a business person needs to develop. I never thought I could start a business from scratch and it wasn’t what I imagined for myself as a 10-year-old, but it has been the best decision I have made and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Dr Sam Bailey is the founder of SwiftMed, a virtual GP clinic that treats many common conditions via video chat with New Zealand GPs from the comfort of your own home. You can keep up to date with their progress on Facebook.

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