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The Art of Seeing the Possible

One of my television idols was Angus MacGyver.
By Dr. David C. Pate, News and Community
June 4, 2012

Dr. Samantha Collier wrote the following piece in response to employee interests expressed during our recent spring forum site visits. Upcoming guest bloggers will include many members of our leadership team, and you are always invited to share your thoughts and ideas with me. I appreciate your time and dedication to transforming health care! 

Remember the very cool former secret agent who repeatedly worked himself out of seemingly impossible, pressure-cooker situations with paper clips, duct tape, and determination?

I sure wanted to be like him. I remember being inspired by his resourcefulness, his uncanny ability to see the possible in the impossible. It was this character attribute that had me on the edge of my couch for the seven seasons the show lasted.

This ability to see the possible in the impossible, or in the very difficult, is critical to putting resourcefulness into action. It’s not the flashes of genius and brilliance that got MacGyver out of trouble, but rather his resourcefulness, his use of the resources available to him in new and different ways.

Walt Disney seems to have been like that as well. Disney ran out of money before the landscaping was finished on his now-legendary theme park. His solution? He had the groundskeepers go around and put tags with Latin names in front of the weeds.

”Maybe it’s about time I expanded the realm of possibilities around here.” – MacGyver

St. Luke’s goal of achieving the Triple Aim of better health, better care, and lower cost demands resourcefulness.

And it’s not simply a matter of doing more with less. What is important and inspiring is the realization that you can do more with less, as MacGyver did, because you and your colleagues are more capable than you might initially believe.

Resourcefulness is not a means of coping with deprivation. It can be a virtue that opens the door to greater accomplishment.

Here’s a real-world example:

The problem: too many unnecessary deaths from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa due to lack of access to reliable health care diagnostic testing

The solution: the one ubiquitous thing available, cell phones

Crazy, you think? Impossible, you say?

Not to a handful of California and Florida university students with a MacGyver mindset.

Those of us accustomed to thinking about what we don’t have, can’t do, and are limited by, and who like to think of ourselves as “mitigating risk,” would have been kicked off the Lifelens team on day one for reminding them that we can’t reduce death from malaria.

The team had no doctors. They weren’t trained in malaria and parasitic infections. There’s no Internet in sub-Saharan Africa.

What are they thinking?! We would need to have clinicians and health care experts to make this work! Even if they could come up with some smartphone app, this will never work. This is a waste of time …


Thankfully for millions of people, Team Lifelens didn’t think this way. Earlier this year, the group was awarded a $75,000 grant from Microsoft following its showing in the annual Imagine Cup student tech competition for being very resourceful in solving a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa: preventable deaths from malaria, which the World Health Organization estimates kills nearly 800,000 people every year.

Team Lifelens’ innovation, a point-of-care smartphone application that is not reliant on Internet access, has immense potential to reduce the cost of diagnosis, enable millions of people around the world to be treated, and prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

The beauty of the Lifelens project is in its simplicity: the phone, the app, and a slide. Apply a blood sample to a slide with a dye that only malaria parasites can absorb. Using a specialized lens, image that slide to get a cellular-level view of blood cells. The team's app then detects which, if any, cells and how many are infected with the malaria parasite.

The Lifelens system can be used by anyone who has the ability to operate basic cell phones, which means that the devices could be shipped directly to needy areas with no special training or language skills needed to operate the equipment.

These students were not bound by “can’t,” “won’t,” “need,” “don’t,” or “shouldn’t.” And there is no reason in the world that their resourcefulness, in taking the resource at hand and transforming it in profoundly lifesaving ways, should be an exception. It can and should be an example and lesson to us all. Team Lifelens shows us that “can’t-dos,” budget constraints, and lack of access to diagnostic health care and laboratory facilities should not be a barrier in opening the door to far greater accomplishments: making health and care better at a lower cost.

Resourcefulness is the key to meaningful innovation. The two are intimately linked, and require that we open our minds to the possible in the impossible. 

Is your mind open? Do you look for the impossible or the possible? What can you do? When your thinking gets bogged down in “can’t” and “I don’t have the resources,” ask yourself, “What would MacGyver do?”

"Well, when it comes down to me against a situation, I don't like the situation to win." – MacGyver

About The Author

David C. Pate, M.D., J.D., is president and CEO of St. Luke's Health System, based in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Pate joined the System in 2009. He received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and his law degree from the University of Houston Law Center.