Innovation Inspiration: Medical Mission in Israel

April 17, 2018

Emory Radiology’s faculty are world-class. This applies to the quality of care they provide patients as much as to their ground-breaking research. World-class also describes the lengths—and places—to which they go for innovation inspiration. For Zachary Bercu, MD, assistant professor and now clinical site director for Interventional Radiology at Emory University Hospital Midtown, the place to go for lessons in innovation is Israel.

“I have a personal connection to Israel,” he explains. “My wife grew up in the US and Israel, so we travel there frequently. One of my own personal interests is how we facilitate innovation clinically. Low and behold, one of the places most involved in rapid bench-to-bedside, clinical needs-driven innovation happens to be Israel.”

Every year, Dr. Bercu attends the ICI-International Conference for Innovations in Cardiovascular Systems and High-Tech Life Science Industry in Israel. He describes it as a “great mix of docs, engineers, and innovators from around the world.” He also describes the general culture in Israeli medicine as one that encourages innovation.

“I wanted to bring colleagues to Israel to see the innovation. I wanted to ask, ‘Is it just me or do others see the culture of innovation, too?’”

A Medical Mission

Dr. Bercu worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to organize a “Medical Mission to Israel” February 11-18.

“I emphasized that the focus for us on the Emory-Georgia Tech side was an investigative trip with the purpose of seeing what we could bring back to our innovation ecosystem in Atlanta,” he explains. “The Federation brought members of the local Jewish community who were interested in exploring medical innovation in Israel. Interestingly, all but one of those community members were also physicians.”

Joining Dr. Bercu from Emory was Starla Longfellow, who recently was named director of technology and innovation for Emory Radiology. “This was a wonderful learning opportunity to help grow in my new position,” she says. “There was absolutely a lot to take in.”

Others included James K. Raines, P.E., professor of practice and director of the Biomedical Engineering Senior Capstone at Georgia Tech and Emory; a Georgia Tech entrepreneur; the founder of an advanced fertility practice in Atlanta; the former chief medical officer of Emory-Saint Joseph's Hospital; and a health systems expert/epidemiologist.

The number of medical personnel on the trip gained them access to high-level administrators, top faculty, and senior staff wherever they went.

From Conflict to Change

One stop was Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based international nonprofit organization focused on improving the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children in developing countries and creating centers of competence in these countries. The high level of innovation, Dr. Bercu explains, is driven by the children’s circumstances. 

“They find ways to innovate because the children can’t be on lifelong anticoagulants, for example, when they return to Iraq or Syria. Most people would say it can’t be done but that’s not true there. They make it happen.”

Another day they visited the Israel Trauma Coalition. ITC works with children impacted by regular rocket alerts who exhibit long term anxiety, incontinence, and other signs of trauma. The unique treatments they’ve developed mean ITC’s doctors are asked to advise other places around the world where children are in trauma situations.

“Israel is surrounded by conflict, so they’re always thinking about using innovation to help those impacted by conflict,” says Dr. Bercu. “They recently traveled to Florida to help the survivor children (of recent mass-shootings). ‘It can’t be done’ just isn’t an option.”

Getting to Yes

Ms. Longfellow now sees how mission impossible breeds innovation. “One of my biggest takeaways is that they figure out a way to make the impossible possible. They find a way to say “yes” whereas in the US we say “no” and that has contributed enormously to their success.”

The next steps, according to Dr. Bercu, start with asking, “Is there a way we can cultivate a culture of innovative, strategic thinking? Can we make Emory and Atlanta a destination for innovation and problem-solving? How can we make this an opportunity for everyone to feel empowered to innovate whenever they see an issue? How do I engage in innovative thinking? What are the tools and the nomenclature to get from no-go to go? How do we get away from ‘it can’t be done,’ and ‘it’s never been done” and get to ‘yes’?”

Those conversations are happening now as part of Radiology Leadership Academy project in which Dr. Bercu, a 2018 fellow, is involved. His team hosted an Innovation Workshop on March 13th to explore these questions.

Dr. Bercu also envisions conversations in the larger Atlanta community as the trip participants pull together stakeholders for a series of ongoing discussions.

“The trip was a powerful experience for everyone involved and we have no doubt that we have critical information gained that can impact our innovation program moving forward.”