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Michael Nasr ’21: Understanding Patients to Drive Innovation

Michael Nasr '21 interviews a simulated patient in the On Doctoring class. (Photo by Mark Washburn)

First-year medical student Michael Nasr wants to know your story. It doesn’t have to be flashy or exciting—he simply wants to understand your perspective.

“The world isn’t perfect—everyone faces challenges, and some more than others,” he says. “A healthcare crisis in my family made me aware of the need to understand our common humanity. When physicians see patients, they often don’t know what brought them to this point and knowing those stories can make a big difference.”

Nasr’s parents, both immigrants from vastly different cultures, instilled in him an appreciation for the opportunities available in America—to not only live his life holistically but to look at other’s lives the same way. “I grew up in northern California, in a supportive multicultural community,” he recalls, “and was fortunate enough to interact with many people of different backgrounds.” This perspective shaped his desire to learn a specific skill set—one related to healthcare, science, and technology—to help the people he had learned so much about.

His interest in biotechnology and medicine led him to explore the worlds of bioengineering and global health as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. While there, using healthcare as a lens to understand other cultures, Nasr joined a service group and traveled to Ecuador with MEDLIFE—a nonprofit organization founded by Geisel alum Nick Ellis, MED ’11, focusing on connecting communities with local doctors and working on sustainable community development projects that prioritizes listening to and empowering community leaders.

In Ecuador, he saw first-hand how listening to a community describe their specific needs can shape solutions to endemic problems. “Beyond helping with patient checkups in clinic, and patient education about hygiene and nutrition, we asked the community what they needed,” Nasr says. “They needed clean bathrooms with running water, so we focused our efforts on building one. I learned something that would eventually influence my future work on engineering projects—you have to collaborate with those you are trying to help in order to develop effective solutions.”

Michael Nasr ’21, and a fellow volunteer, begin building a running-water bathroom in Ecuador.

He returned from the mission deeply affected and says it played an important role in shaping his college experience and defining what he wanted to do—marry his interest in medicine with his love of engineering.

For his senior bioengineering project, Nasr collaborated with a doctor at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) who was working to reduce the high rate of infant mortality in Guatemala from neurological problems. His goal: design a medical device to determine risk factors and stem the death rate. Midwives attend most births so educating them to recognize the neurological warning signs in newborns could save the babies’ lives.

“Based on the Apgar scale, we created an iPhone-type of device the midwives could use to plug-in numbers to determine whether or not the babies were healthy,” Nasr explains. “After months of working on this we presented it to the doctor who said, ‘This is way too complicated—where are they going to get the batteries and how are they going to afford this?’

“She was right. We had forgotten the context—the literacy levels of the midwives and affordability—and over-engineered the solution.”

With that in mind, Nasr and the design team went back to the drawing board and created a technologically simple device based on an abacus that was easy to use, didn’t need batteries, and was inexpensive. “I loved that project because I saw the power of innovation, which doesn’t have to be technologically advanced to be useful,” Nasr says.

Driven by that realization, he went to work as an engineer in the medical device industry working on a variety of devices, such as a percutaneous device to repair a malfunctioning mitral valve. “For me, this was incredible—yes, there are inherent risks, but for the appropriate cases, you don’t have to perform open heart surgery, there’s less chance of infection, less trauma for the patient, and a shorter recovery time,” he says. “Seeing videos of patients who were bedridden one day, then get up and walk across the room a week later, was unforgettable.”

After two years in the industry, Nasr was eager to learn more.

He enrolled in a graduate program focusing on translating scientific medicine into tangible products, then pitching them to venture capitalists. Working closely with transplant surgeons at UCSF, the team developed a novel assay for detecting subclinical kidney injury allowing for timely intervention that could prolong the life of kidney transplants. Unintentionally, the program exposed Nasr to the need for physician-driven innovation, solidifying his desire to go to medical school. It also revealed he wasn’t satisfied developing solutions behind the scenes—he wanted to speak to those he was trying to help.

“I love engineering and research, but the one thing missing was patient interaction. I find value in connecting with people—I want to get to know them and think about what I can do to improve their lives.” To do that, Nasr says, he needs to hear their stories. “Healthcare goes beyond clinical medicine,” he says, “there are many factors that have to be considered when trying to treat a patient, such as what their lives will look like after they leave your office, or even how they’ll get there in the first place.”

He believes the future of medicine includes seeing a patient holistically—not just as a diagnosis—and working with broader healthcare teams to improve access to healthcare for all individuals irrespective of their socioeconomic status. As a Global Health Scholar at Geisel, Nasr is furthering awareness about the challenges underserved populations face both here and abroad. And as a physician gaining a better understanding of those challenges, he plans to continue researching and working on lower cost therapies that will benefit both patients and physicians.

“We need to think about moving innovation forward by using the information and data around us to judiciously create the best tools possible—to think holistically,” Nasr says. “I’m not saying we should do less, but we do need to think about innovation in a different context. Creating devices with a lower cost that are accessible globally to those with fewer resources can have a huge impact on healthcare.”