You Don’t Have to Outrun The Bear

I had a wonderful discussion with an old friend from college who was trying to learn more about radiology. A computer scientist classically trained in a top US university for software engineering, she has years of experience in data science. She is now trying to apply her extensive expertise in analytics to healthcare. In our discussion, she began to express her concerns – having taken only 1 introductory biology course in college, she was worried that her limited knowledge in healthcare and medicine will prove to be the lynchpin of this transition.

A famous saying, sometimes delivered as part of a joke, goes like this: when a mountain bear is chasing after you, you don’t have to outrun the bear. You only have to outrun the guy running next to you.

Here’s a corollary to the bear problem: you don’t have to be the best in the world. Science improves by increments, so you only have to know more than the next person to make a unique contribution. She probably will need to put in significant effort to learn about health services delivery – but she doesn’t have to know how to diagnose epithelioid hemangioendothelioma on MRI. She already is an expert, an expert in data science, a field starved for expertise in healthcare.

And the inverse of the situation probably also holds true. Not infrequently in discussions with friends and colleagues in radiology, medicine, or other healthcare fields I hear “this Big Data thing is very exciting, but I don’t know how to program and barely know what parallel computing means!”

It’s ok. You will probably have to invest in some time to learn the basics of informatics and data science. You should know what it is, where it is going, and what exciting promises it may deliver. But know that you are not competing against Google on web search, against Amazon for a product recommendation, or Facebook for social connectivity. You don’t have to outrun the goliath; you only have to care a little more and know a little more than the person sitting next to you at the staff meeting to make real contributions.

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