PennHealthX began as a student group where future doctors can explore their interests in business and technology. After 10 years, it has surpassed the standard for traditional extracurricular clubs, and has grown into an influential student-driven creative hub within the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), a place where future doctors can experiment with new ideas at the crossroads of medicine and other disciplines, discover alternate career paths and even launch their own businesses. The club includes a popular lecture series, internship funding, an annual conference and a venture arm, as well as a revolving host of projects based on the interests of its student participants.
The seed for PennHealthX was planted in 2012 by first-year medical students Jacqueline Soegaard Ballester and Dan O’Connor. All three students had chosen to attend PSOM because they were attracted to Penn’s ecosystem of business and innovation. To them, medical education was about more than becoming a top-notch physician—it was also about finding a place in a rapidly evolving health care ecosystem, where fitness trackers and connected apps were flourishing, doctors were launching health-focused startups and medical providers were preparing for the mandatory shift to electronic health records.
The three classmates already had ideas they were eager to explore. O’Connor hoped to develop his own health care startups. Soegaard Ballester wanted to hone her skills in health informatics—the combination of health care and information technologies to improve patient outcomes. And Dao was intrigued by health care leadership and operations management. But Penn lacked a structured avenue for early medical school students to access Penn’s business community.
The trio fleshed out their ideas in a shared Google document. They drafted a proposal for a new medical student group and an accompanying area of concentration in the medical school curriculum dubbed Healthcare Management, Entrepreneurship, and Technology, which was modeled on other medical school concentrations, such as those in women’s health and global health.
Ten years later, the program now known as PennHealthX has exceeded the expectations of its founders. The club has grown into an influential student-driven creative hub within PSOM.
The ranks of PennHealthX alumni will only grow, as a $6 million gift from health care investor Roderick Wong, has endowed the program, ensuring it can continue in perpetuity. “You have leaders in clinical medicine and leaders in academic medicine, but [HealthX students] are going to be the leaders in medical innovation,” Wong says. “It’s great that Penn is attracting those people because they’re going to change the future.”
Since PennHealthX was formed, other medicine-plus groups and efforts have launched to connect PSOM students with their other shared interests outside medicine. Examples include the Penn Med Symphony Orchestra, which formed in 2016 and is open to medical students, and the Arts and Medicine student group, which held its first show of student art in 2018.
That’s a trend in keeping with what Suzanne Rose, senior vice dean for medical education at PSOM, says she wants to see—helping students to individualize their medical education based on their interests. “My goal is to create leaders and do-gooders,” Rose says. “Whether the students want to be clinician-scientists, work in advocacy, in politics or in business, they should always be thinking about the patients and the communities served by what they do.”
In 2020, as medical students adjusted to a global pandemic, Alex Beschloss, then HealthX co-president with Elana Meer, says he realized the pandemic was the next inflection point for the student group. “We saw how COVID-19 ravaged the world, disproportionately affecting those who have poor access to many structural and social determinants of health,” he says. “I realized HealthX had a unique opportunity to make an impact while also helping expose Penn Med students to the business strategy world.”
Beschloss designed the PennHealthX “social determinants of health accelerator,” an initiative that pairs HealthX students with startup businesses geared toward solving public health problems. In its initial iteration, the accelerator connected three startups—one focused on maternal health disparities and the other two on food insecurity—with six medical student interns who could offer support at no cost to the startup. “While HealthX absolutely still explores areas of innovation around health tech, business, management and biotechnology,” Beschloss says, “the accelerator added increased focus on how these topics can be applied toward equity and access to health care.”
Some social determinants of health accelerator participants are now interning with Tiffany Yeh, who recently completed her term as HealthX co-president. Yeh, who has a background in materials engineering, opted not to pursue a medical residency in favor of founding her own health care startup business. Inspired by Yeh’s own chronic health condition, Eztia is a company that designs discreet and convenient cold therapy wearables for athletics, women’s health, and other consumer health applications. “As a solo founder, building a talented and dedicated team is all the more crucial,” she says. “Penn medical students have been working with me on translating clinical knowledge into educational content around the mind-body connection, pain and women’s health.”
This story is by Christina Hernandez Sherwood. Read more at Penn Medicine News.