​Prolific inventor, Dr Hairil Rizal, pares down innovation to a simple 5-step process, and shares why he enjoys working even with so much on his plate. 

You may have read about his teams' innovations including an online tool to gauge risks in surgery for better planning, a booth system for safer mass COVID-19 swabbing (SG-SAFE), and a portable system to convert rooms into negative pressure ones to house infectious patients in isolation (SG-SPARC). LighterNotes caught up with Dr Hairil Rizal, Senior Consultant, Anaesthesiology & Perioperative Sciences, to find out what makes an innovator like him tick. 

In your innovation projects, I can imagine the journey wasn’t smooth sailing and that you faced many challenges?

Yes, the main challenge was that what is required to get innovations going is really beyond what is generally taught in medical school. For example, setting up the one-stop Preoperative Assessment Centre - medical school does not teach me how to start a clinical service. It was a tough journey. Two years of blood, sweat and tears, learning-on-the-job about patient flow, infrastructure, building fire codes, where to put the door, why we cannot have a shutter, IT infrastructure such as how many Wi Fi ports, or how big my patient waiting area could be. For the portable negative pressure room system SG-SPARC, that required hardcore engineering. I googled and read books on the principles of engineering to learn about airflow, fire resistance, how fast the doors should open and close. I remember reading about airflow at 2am in the morning. But I had fun because I'm inquisitive by nature. I'm always curious. I like to ask questions. And I'm always wondering how something came to be; the processes behind it.  
Many equate innovation to technology. So they think they cannot innovate because they are not tech-savvy. What do you say to this? 

Innovation is simply about finding an answer to a problem. 

There are a few steps to innovating. Firstly, identify the problem. If you are a beginner in innovation, start with problems in your area/domain. Then you know best about the issue. Look no further than your day-to-day work. Is there something that makes you worry, or ask, 'Why is it like that?' 
Secondly, decide whether this issue is worth solving based on its magnitude - does it just affect you or many people?

Thirdly, assemble a team of colleagues who face this same problem. When you form a team, don't pick colleagues who think like you. The more varied - different personalities, different perspectives - the better. Having a team in which everyone thinks differently will help guard against bias and minimise blind spots.

Fourthly, ask around. Tap on various subject matter experts relevant to your innovation project. For example, a colleague who can advise you how to write up a grant, or an engineer outside of our industry, or a relevant external agency like A*Star to test out your innovation.  

Finally, your team members must not be afraid to speak up. As the team leader, you must ensure that everybody is heard and all feel safe to express their opinions. For myself as team lead, before I do anything I always remind myself that my aim is to bring out the best in each person. With this mantra guiding my actions, I am able to build a safe space. 
SG-SAFE, SG-SPARC, setting up the one-stop Pre-operative Assessment Center, , two Masters, a graduate diploma, a PhD, institutional lead for Value-driven Care plus your work as an Anaesthesiologist at busy SGH … how do you do it all?

It's really a balancing act. I allocate my time based on the magnitude of impact of my various pieces of work. And I don't just work hard. I make time for holidays, gym, spinning, movies - I just watched Top Gun last night - and I run 5 km for about 30 minutes every other day. I love to run because it brings out the ideas...a lot of ideas come whilst I'm running. 

Why is it important not to work all the time?
Because you will burn out. And it makes you resent your work. I believe you have to enjoy what you are doing. For example, I love working. I enjoy solving problems. The only way to sustain my passion is for me not to feel that my work is a burden. You come to work, it must be something that you want to do in order for you to give your best.

How about sleep? How much sleep do you need? And what time do you usually wake up? 
Roughly 6 to 7 hours of sleep is enough for me. I get up at 6.30am. But I'm not a morning person. So I need at least 2 espresso shots by 10am for my brain to work.

Any other advice for our budding innovators?
Remember, innovation is not a one-man show. No one brain can think of all the solutions. Teamwork is very important. Every single innovation that I’ve done is a team effort. I am nothing without my super team mates and I want to take this opportunity to thank every single one of them.

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