Healthcare Pioneers

Blog post by Colin Hung.

In past years, the HCLDR chat that has fallen right before the Thanksgiving holiday in the US has been on the topic of giving thanks. This year, I thought we do something a little different, yet still centered on a Thanksgiving theme.

When US Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself thinking back to the early days of North America and what it must have been like for those brave souls who came across the ocean in rickety wooden ships to colonize an unknown land. I imagine them catching sight of North America’s shores after a weeks-long journey – their faces full of hope, courage and determination. defines pioneer as:

  1. A person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.
  2. One who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress: pioneers in cancer research.
  3. One of a group of foot soldiers detailed to make roads, dig intrenchments, etc., in advance of the main body.
  4. Ecology . An organism that successfully establishes itself in a barren area, thus starting an ecological cycle of life.

Pioneers are the people that blaze the trails so that others who come after will have an easier time settling in to the new world. That’s what happened in the 1700s in Canada and the United States – and on Thanksgiving in both countries we give thanks to those pioneers who paved the way.

Healthcare Pioneers

I thought it would be interesting this week on #HCLDR to discuss healthcare pioneers, which I would define as:

  1. A person who is first, or among the earliest to develop or adopt a new healthcare model, medical process, treatment protocol or technology
  2. A group of individuals that puts healthcare infrastructure in place to enable new forms or types of care, so that those that follow will have an easier time
  3. A person or group that successfully establishes themselves in a new area of healthcare that was previously unknown, unoccupied or inaccessible, thus extending the healthcare ecosystem into this new area

Healthcare Pioneers from the past would therefore include:

  • Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine
  • Edward Jenner, who developed the first vaccine
  • Louis Pasteur, the first scientist to support the idea that diseases are caused by microorganisms
  • Florence Nightingale, the progenitor of modern nursing
  • Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
  • Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the US
  • Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first black woman to earn an MD degree in the US

Modern pioneers would include: the first Direct-Primary-Care (DPC) practices in the US, anyone working in the field of genomic medicine, any clinician using social media to connect with patients and companies developing organ printing.

Pioneer characteristics

Pioneers not only have courage to go where no one has gone before (there’s my SciFi reference!), they are also incredibly resourceful. North American pioneers couldn’t run to the nearest General Store to buy the nails they needed, they had to make their own in home-made forges. When something broke, they found a way to make repairs with whatever they had on hand – string, wire, wood and bits of metal.

Modern pioneers have to be equally resourceful, using whatever is handy in order to keep pushing forward. For example, consider the early adopters of Telehealth (a topic we will discuss next week with guest hosts UPMC’s Center for Connected Medicine). There were no regulations, reimbursements or dedicated technologies that addressed Telehealth, but found a way and made it work. Today, thankfully, regulations and technology have finally caught up to the pioneers.

Pioneer thinking

What fascinates me most is the mindset of pioneers. They approached problems and risks in unique ways. They weren’t afraid to ask for help from their neighbors. In fact, working together with others was often the only way early pioneers got anything done. I love their in-it-together attitude.

I also love how they were willing to try something and learn from it. To take a risk, on a small scale, and see how it worked (or didn’t). Unfortunately, in healthcare, the entire system is designed to remove or reduce risk – so much so that it stifles the pioneering spirit of clinicians and admin staff that want to make changes.

Pioneers were driven by a desire to make things better for their immediate family and their neighbors. They may not have realized they were blazing a trail for the rest of us, but their work is what makes our wold possible.

Join me Tuesday November 20th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) as we explore the pioneering spirit in healthcare.

  • T1 What defines a healthcare pioneer? What characteristics do they have that others don’t?
  • T2 What is the difference between a “malcontent” who is simply bucking the system in spite vs a pioneer? Do we have more malcontents or pioneers in healthcare right now?
  • T3 What can healthcare leaders do to promote more “pioneer thinking” – taking calculated risks and being resourceful?
  • T4 Time for shout-outs to people past and present. Who are the healthcare pioneers that you are thankful for?


“Six Health Care Pioneers Inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame”, Longwoods, 12 April 2018,, accessed 19 November 2018

“Museum Exhibit Showcases Healthcare Pioneers”, SwiftCurrent Online, 20 September 2016,, accessed 19 November 2018

Thorpe, JR. “8 Overlooked Female Medical Pioneers”, Bustle, 22 January 2016,, accessed 18 November 2018

Murphy, Brooke and Haefner, Morgan. “21 Medical Pioneers to Celebrate This Black History Month”, Becker’s Hospital Review, 3 February 2017,, accessed 19 November 2018

Tiffin, Sue. “Dobrzensky shares hardships, contributions of pioneer women”, The Haliburton County Echo, 2 May 2017,, accessed 18 November 2018

“Pioneer Life”, Scholastic,, accessed 19 November 2018

“Living the Pioneer Life for a Day”,  The San Diego Union-Tribune, 31 January 2015,, accessed 19 November 2018

Image Credit

Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash

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