Tag: Atul Gawande

Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto”

Every now and then, I read and enjoy a book, but only later fully appreciate it as its lessons and insights slowly become apparent. Judging by the number of times I’ve said, “That reminds me of Gawande’s observations about ___” over the past month, The Checklist Manifesto is one such book.

In this short, deceptively simple volume, Atul (who I count as both friend and inspiration) discusses the history of “the lowly checklist,” the impact of checklists on various industries, how he came to understand the value of checklists to medical care, and what makes a useful checklist. Most of this content could have been written by a thoughtful healthcare journalist. But Atul put his interest in checklists to practical use, spearheading a WHO initiative to test a checklist-based “safe surgery” program in 8 diverse hospitals around the world, an effort that saved hundreds of lives. His description of this program forms the core of the book.

Which is as it should be, since these autobiographical elements highlight what is unique about Atul, and his book. Yes, he is a gifted journalist (of course, aided by a surgeon’s insider knowledge and access – as demonstrated by last year’s game changing article about healthcare in McAllen, Texas). But he is also a healthcare leader, whose clear aim is not only to explain attitudes and policy, but to change them. It would be as if Malcolm Gladwell had tried to create a Tipping Point himself, and written up the experience. The whole thing gets very “meta” very quickly, and in the hands of a lesser person, might even threaten to become a bit dicey. (Is he a medical George Plimpton – trying out checklists in the OR to provide fodder for his writing?) But there’s no such worry here: Atul’s passion for patients and humility are so obvious that one never questions his methods or motives.

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Check Lists and Decision Trees versus Spontaneity and Imagination

The task of health care reform in 21st century America is to decrease per-capita cost of care and to increase the quality of care delivered to patients. It’s complicated.  A famous Rand study concluded that Americans only receive 55% of the care that science dictates. Patients intuitively believe that more health care is always beneficial. Medicare reformers would like to do comparative effectiveness research so that CMS and private insurers could wind up paying only for therapy that actually works. Some estimate that 30% of all care delivered in the United States is waste.  What some call waste, others label revenue, and Atul Gawande becomes famous for identifying waste/revenue in McAllen, Texas (

Neuroscience tells us that the smartest human can only keep track of seven variables at one time, and physicians tell us that diagnosis and treatment of a complicated patient can involve as many as 100 such variables.  Computers are good at cataloging, organizing, and retrieving information, but physicians are not yet routinely utilizing them at the point of care.  Computers are also good at allowing us to analyze large data sets and learn from experience.   Patients yearn for the warmth and caring of a doctor who really knows and cares about them. Behavioral economics pioneered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman taught us that human brains are designed with inherent biases that make us less than rational decision-makers.  We now know that human physicians and patients suffer from biases such as Pygmalion complex, confirmation bias, focusing illusion, incorrectly weighing initial numbers, and being more impressed with single cases than conclusions based on large data sets ( reading…

Enthoven beats up Gawande

I finally got around to reading Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece on why the current reform bill mirrors early 20th century agriculture. I learned lots about the role of the Department of Agriculture in teaching farmers what to do. In post-war Britain the radio soap opera The Archers did much the same thing.

I was actually encouraged to remember that in almost every industrialization process, intelligence, leadership, and usually money, from the government was a key factor.

But I felt very uncomfortable with the analogy. First, the incentive for the farmers was to be more productive—even if in the long run productivity meant a relative fall in the price of food and eventually the rise of agri-business decades later. If they did things right there was an immediate market reward. Whereas we know that (from the Virginia Mason and Intermountain examples) increasing quality and productivity in health care leads to negative financial consequences.

Secondly, Gawande seems to be fine with saying that “we don’t know how to be more efficient, productive and effective, so let’s do pilots for years and figure it out.” This is just crap. We’ve both done pilots for decades, and have examples of organizational forms (you know who I mean!) that get it right. It’s just made no sense for most of the health care system to adopt those techniques and organizational forms because they make more money by doing what they’re doing—and government and employers keep paying them.

I was going to write a long piece detailing my complaints blow by blow, but luckily Alain Enthoven has done it for me!

This doesn’t mean I’m against the current bill as I suspect Enthoven is. There is some hope that ACOs and other modern terminology for the types of organization he’s espoused over the years, will arise more quickly from the “pilots” in the bill than Enthoven suspects. But more importantly, I support the bill because the saving money part is the second of my “two rules to judge a bill.” The first and most important rule is

Rule 1 A health care reform bill needs to guarantee that no one should find themselves unable to get care simply because they cannot afford it. Neither should anyone find themselves financially compromised (or worse) because they have received care.

And the current bill just about does that….although Maggie Mahar is pretty doubtful, especially for near-seniors in the first few years.

Improving the Harvest: Farming and Health Care

I love Atul Gawande’s writings on health care.

He has a rare talent for describing technical details of health care, insurance and finances in terms that most people can understand. His recent article in the New Yorker discussed the current health reform bills’ approach to curbing costs, using the agricultural industry as a potential model.

One of his basic points is similar to one I have made before. He describes two kinds of problems: “those which are amenable to a technical solution and those which are not. Universal health care coverage belongs to the first category . . . Problems of the second kind [referring to rising health care costs], by contrast, are never solved, exactly; they are managed.”

I would frame it somewhat differently. The two basic kinds of problems are those, which are amenable to a government solution, and those which are best addressed using decentralized market forces.

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