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'Innovation is not an option, it's a necessity,' says 15-year-old inventor at HIMSS21

Photo: Oscar & Associates for HIMSS

LAS VEGAS – Since she was just a toddler, Gitanjali Rao says she’s been considering ways to improve the world.

Whether it’s a tool to help protect people from tree pollen, or – most recently – an app that aims to use artificial intelligence to address issues of cyber bullying, Rao explained during a HIMSS21 keynote speech Wednesday morning that she’s spent years working on devices that could potentially change the world.   

“All of us can, and do, solve problems around us once we’re motivated,” said Rao, whose speech kicked off a two-day Accelerate Health specialty program.  

Rao, now 15, was named Time’s first-ever Kid of the Year this past December in recognition of her work to detect lead in drinking water and to flag early signs of opioid addiction. She’s also mentored tens of thousands of students, and she’s writing a book aimed at young people.  

But, she noted wryly, some of her priorities are more short-term: “My biggest goal right now is get through junior year,” she said.  

The teenager, who skipped her second day of school to join HIMSS21 attendees in Las Vegas, emphasized the importance of building community and fostering relationships, especially with younger people motivated to make a difference.  

“If I had to make one request of each of you here, it would be to seek a mentee, and mentor them in the areas they’re passionate about,” said Rao. “That will make a difference in this world, as well,” she added.  

She urged audience members to “say yes” to students seeking answers and guidance. “Even if it’s one student, you’re already impacting an entire generation of changemakers,” she said.  

“Innovation is not an option, it’s a necessity,” she continued.   

Rao outlined her strategy for innovation, which also relies heavily on spreading awareness. It’s not enough, she said, to be aware of a problem or even to come up with an idea. Telling others about it is important too.

“One person can’t make a difference alone,” she said. “You need to create a movement – a movement of innovators looking to solve problems.”  

“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” she said. 

Rao also noted the potential of social media to spread helpful information. “I love TikTok,” she laughed, while still highlighting the need for students to learn critical thinking and digital safety on the Internet.   

She explained that she’s been fortunate to have learned that it’s OK to take risks, and to be OK with setbacks – which, she feels, schools should be teaching young people.  

“We can’t stigmatize failure anymore,” she said. “It’s better to fail fast and fail forward than not fail at all.”

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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