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Computer programmer or doctor? For this medical student, the answer is both

Ketetha Olengue has a special interest in the convergence of health and technology: She’s had a pacemaker since she was 9

Ketetha Olengue portrait

Ketetha Olengue developed an interest in technology at a young age. (Photo/Paul Boutin)

Keck School of Medicine of USC student Ketetha Olengue, a native of Texas, had a pacemaker installed at age 9, when she also developed an interest in computer programming. Now going into her third year of medical school, she plans to apply her background as a computer science undergrad to her future as a physician. Olengue spoke with USC News writer Paul Boutin about the convergence of digital technology and medicine.

I spent this past year working with Leslie Saxon at the USC Center for Body Computing, whose mission is to reimagine everyday health and wellness services for all involved, so they can be more accessible and more affordable.

I’ve realized that in order to achieve a positive impact in patient’s lives with digital health, one has to understand that we are straddling the line between two worlds. One is tech innovation, where thinking outside the box is both easy and encouraged. The other is medicine, where rules, procedures, and even our own schedules are rigid for good reasons. Once we learn to work in both worlds, we can make sure digital solutions thrive in both climates — and even have fun doing it.

USC medical school: a convergence

At the Keck School of Medicine and working with Dr. Saxon, I often find myself in conversations about the convergence of tech and medicine.

I’m on my third model of pacemaker that enables me to exercise alongside my community without worry.

It’s important to have those conversations, because health care is becoming a part of you. I literally have technology inside me — I’m on my third model of pacemaker that enables me to exercise alongside my community without worry. I recently got an Apple Watch, which motivates me on a daily basis to be curious about my overall health, whether that’s my sleep hygiene or the rhythm of my heart. These external and internal digital tools enable me to exercise in earnest because at last, it’s both easy and safe.

But digital health is not just about having the coolest watch or the latest gadget. There is a serious need for innovation to transform our health care system to be more secure, self-improving and most importantly to be more patient-centric. We all know too well the problems that limit our ability to provide the best care possible to everyone: poor access to care, lack of transparency in health care costs, inefficient workflows and uncoordinated communication that leads to medical errors and billions of dollars wasted. The emergence of digital tech in medicine promises to remove these roadblocks, or at least find ways around them.

Remote care options

Remote care options are advancing quickly, too. Patients can connect to health care specialists from outside a hospital via computers, smartphones or wearable gadgets like my Apple Watch. Rather than being tied to constant visits to a clinic, they can go out and live active, mobile lives. Our state of health is continuous — it doesn’t start and stop when we arrive at or leave the hospital. Leveraging digital tech creates many more opportunities and touch points to learn more about our patients’ health, so we can improve the quality of their lives.

I’m glad to be in multidisciplinary community that encourages me to look at all aspects of a problem, rather than just the traditional clinician’s role. We talk about the future: What’s it going to look like? What are the repercussions of digital health? Whose responsibility is it to ensure information is accurate?

Talking tech

We’re talking about the protection of data in the social context, and as it relates to our patients. We’re talking about genomics. We’re talking about patient care. We’re talking about education. We’re talking about content creation and storytelling. And while we talk about these things in the context of our current social and political climate, we’re still thinking forward to how these changes will shape the future, and looking back to see just how far we have come.

The convergence of tech and medicine opens up new worlds, and new possibilities, even as people worry about the risks. Bringing physicians and programmers together is a start, but professionals who are trained in and understand both fields themselves will have a critical role in that future. Don’t let me sound too self-important, though: I’m grateful that instead of having to choose between being a doctor or being a coder, I get to do both things I love.

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Computer programmer or doctor? For this medical student, the answer is both

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