I wrote a little in the last EPtalk about the interview Atul Gawande recently did with Tyler Cowen. I find Gawande fascinating and appreciate his measured, real-world thoughts around some of the challenges we face in healthcare. There’s a lot of push to try to have technology solve everything and his respect for simple solutions, such as checklists, is refreshing.
One of the topics covered in the interview was medical education, specifically what is missing from the way we train doctors. Many of us recognize that there has been quite a bit added to medical education in the last few decades – genomics, precision medicine, and the concepts of clinical quality and patient engagement. I started my medical education at a time when schools were first realizing that non-science majors could be physicians and that we had other knowledge to bring to the table.
Gawande notes that there isn’t any education “around the fact that we are no longer a craft. It’s no longer an individual craft of being the smartest, most experienced, and capable individual.” He goes on to say that medicine has “exceeded the capabilities of any individual to manage the volume of knowledge and skill required” leading to care delivery via teams. Students need to know how to function as a team, how to manage when the team isn’t being effective, and more.
I’ve found that it’s not just in medicine that people are missing out on functioning as teams. Our culture has become so competitive, even down to the ranks of toddler soccer, and activities that promote teamwork and team development seem to sometimes fall by the wayside. Although sports can be an avenue for teamwork, I see more push towards individual performance and trying to advance to more exclusive teams than I see towards working to make sure the team is the best it can be.
I’m working with a client right now that is a case study for this. They have a small stable of individual contributors working on process improvement projects. They can each recite a long list of their achievements and how they have climbed the ladder, but they are struggling to grasp the concept of themselves as a team. Some of it resolves around trust in the team, and teaching people to trust each other is a lot harder than people think. With this group, I’ve never seen as many eye-rolls as I did when I asked the group to read “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen Covey.
He shares his thoughts on physicians of the future needing to operate more as trusted counselors who have increased dialogue with patients about their goals and needs. During my career, I’ve watched the physician-patient relationship evolve from a more paternalistic model to one of shared decision-making and patient empowerment. Being in a more consultative role makes sense, but unfortunately our current framework for compensating physicians doesn’t support that. Even with the transition to value-based care, physicians are being paid for outcomes, which means following population-based protocols that may or may not be right for a specific patient.
He mentions the mismatch between treatment and patient priorities as being a cause of suffering. Additionally, he notes that the change in how healthcare is financed has altered care: “Just the payment incentives alone dramatically affect whether my tendency is to give you overtreatment in certain situations and undertreatment in others.”
I did find it funny and a little bit ironic that Gawande said, “The most powerful tool that a clinician has is their pen, and has the power to order medications to test, to doing an operation.” I haven’t used a pen in the exam room for years and usually I only use one to sign return-to-work notes or controlled substance prescriptions. It just doesn’t sound as exciting to say the most powerful tool you have is your computer, although I think it’s true. For many of us, it’s not just about ordering tests – it’s about having immediate access to information from around the world and to be able to bring that information to the discussion at the point of care.
Gawande was asked about the FDA and whether the new drug development process should be liberalized. Some of us weren’t around when there was no such thing as the FDA and he has some good reminders in that regard. Although it was a time of innovation, it was also a time with horrendous medical endeavors such as the frontal lobotomy and the Tuskegee experiment.
He notes that the process of regulating medical treatments has been sped up by patient engagement efforts around HIV and has led to more discussion of the balance between risk and speed of innovation. Increased speed has led to more drugs being withdrawn as a result of post-marketing surveillance and he supports balance in the approval process. He also mentions his thoughts on the FDA not only regulating drugs and surgical devices, but in tracking outcomes for surgical procedures. Although procedures can have some variability based on the patient and the circumstances, he feels there is a fair amount of institutional variability that could benefit from tracking and analysis.
The interview was a far-ranging discussion, including Gawande’s thoughts on Stevie Wonder (was overrated, now underrated); Michael Crichton (both over and underrated); and Karl Knausgard (overrated). He tags wearables as underrated, largely because they don’t do terribly much right now.
He also talked about his work as the director of Ariadne, an academic center that is part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. The center looks to study how science and innovation impact healthcare delivery. They recently did work with the state of South Carolina studying how to encourage surgeons to use a surgery checklist without regulations or mandates. Their program achieved 40 percent adoption, but he noted that it would likely take mandates or another process to bring the other 60 percent of surgeons to use it. I have to admit, the center has been running for five years and I hadn’t heard of it, although it sounds like something I’d be very interested in. I have a good friend starting her MPH at Harvard this fall, so I’ll have to see if she can get me an insider view.
There were some other interesting statistics in the interview. The average American has eight operations in his or her lifetime. He’s particularly interested in that because surgery is “the highest-risk, highest-cost, highest-failure moment in your lifetime.” Personally, I think the idea of having eight surgeries is something to be explored in its own right and would love to dig into those numbers.
I also appreciated Gawande’s thoughts on building his team and hiring the right people. He encourages the hiring manager to come up with a list of accomplishments for the next two years and hire someone who can meet the goal rather than hiring someone that is likable or fun. He notes that people should Intend: “Do what you intend to do, and do it with intention. Over and over, that’s what people fail to do.” I see a lot of that in my own world, people treading water or going with the flow, and moving with intention is significantly less common.
The interview closes with Gawande’s thoughts on indie music. He recommends Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, who he describes as “bards of sorrow and nonetheless sticking it through.” He warns that “they’re Scottish, so there’s a whole lot of cussing going on.” Based on that recommendation alone, I’ll have to check it out.
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