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How doodling leads to innovation: a conversation with physician-innovator Reed Omary

Posted by on Monday, August 23, 2021 in MIDP .

by Emma Mattson

Reed Omary, MD
Reed Omary, MD

For radiologist and physician-innovator Reed Omary, MD, doodling isn’t just a hobby— it’s an essential step in the innovation process.

“The concept of sketching or doodling is a way to ensure my own understanding,” Omary explains. “When you write, don’t you feel like you learn the material better and you clarify your own thinking? There’s nothing that restricts that to words.”

As the founder and director of VUSM’s Medical Innovators Development Program (MIDP), Omary knows just how crucial visual expression can be. Part of his propensity towards doodling comes from his own thought style.

“I’m a visual thinker,” Omary says. “I went into radiology, so it’s no surprise. If I can’t express something through a figure or a drawing, I don’t really understand it.”

field notesBut creative doodling isn’t just a practice for visual thinkers; it enables design thinking, better team communication, and fresh perspective on clinical situations. Plus, you don’t have to be a professionally trained artist to express your idea on a whiteboard.

In fact, Omary said, “I think the creativity and brainstorming ability of an organization can be reflected by the number of whiteboards in the space.”

Doodling requires an element of improvisation— or “visual jazz,” as Omary puts it —which often leads the doodler to a new element or idea they couldn’t have predicted. This type of improvisation became especially important as individuals and organizations adapted during COVID-19.

“A lot of people— myself included —had gone through the pandemic and reflected a lot on why are we here, what’s our purpose, what do we want out of life,” Omary said. “For me, an ongoing practice that was influenced and altered but not started by the pandemic was metacognition.”

stack of journals

For Omary, metacognition— or thinking about how we think —meant a deeper look into the methods available for expressing thought and experience.

Now, he advises medical students and physician innovators alike to carry a pocket journal to note questions and ideas whenever inspiration hits.

“Anyone who is around me knows that I always carry a pocket journal,” Omary said. “I’m carrying one now, and I write in it almost every day.”

Though the practice might feel stilted at first, creative journaling is a habit that positively reinforces itself— and delivers unexpected innovation.

“I have no idea what I’m going to come up with at the end; it’s like jazz,” Omary said. “And now over time I have a record of my thoughts, ideas, and musings, often with a ton of sketches.”

Though some sketches are just for his own thinking process, Omary does share many of his creative sketches on his Twitter (@ReedOmary). Check them out for inspiration and to kickstart your own creative doodling practice! You might be surprised at the innovation sparked in your own medical journey.