Atul Gawande: How do we heal medicine?

I had to watch it a dozen times in order to get the essence of his talk. It is very dense. So, how do we all get good at what we’re trying to do?

“I got my start in writing and research as a surgical trainee, as someone who was a long ways away from becoming any kind of an expert at anything. So the natural question you ask then at that point is, how do I get good at what I’m trying to do? And it became a question of, how do we all get good at what we’re trying to do?”

“In the last few years we realized we were in the deepest crisis of medicine’s existence due to something you don’t normally think about when you’re a doctor concerned with how you do good for people, which is the cost of health care. There’s not a country in the world that now is not asking whether we can afford what doctors do. The political fight that we’ve developed has become one around whether it’s the government that’s the problem or is it insurance companies that are the problem. And the answer is yes and no; it’s deeper than all of that.”

“The cause of our troubles is actually the complexity that science has given us.”

“We’re all specialists now, even the primary care physicians. Everyone just has a piece of the care. But holding onto that structure we built around the daring, independence, self-sufficiency of each of those people has become a disaster. We have trained, hired and rewarded people to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews that we need, pit crews for patients.

“Our experience as people who get sick, need help from other people, is that we have amazing clinicians that we can turn to — hardworking, incredibly well-trained and very smart — that we have access to incredible technologies that give us great hope, but little sense that it consistently all comes together for you from start to finish in a successful way.”

“Having great components is not enough, and yet we’ve been obsessed in medicine with components. We want the best drugs, the best technologies, the best specialists, but we don’t think too much about how it all comes together. It’s a terrible design strategy actually.”

“Now a system, however, when things start to come together, you realize it has certain skills for acting and looking that way. Skill number one is the ability to recognize success and the ability to recognize failure. When you are a specialist, you can’t see the end result very well. You have to become really interested in data, unsexy as that sounds.”

“Which brings us to skill number two a system has. Skill one, find where your failures are. Skill two is devise solutions.”

“And so we looked at what other high-risk industries do. We looked at skyscraper construction, we looked at the aviation world, and we found that they have technology, they have training, and then they have one other thing: They have checklists.
Could we design a checklist for surgery? Not for the lowest people on the totem pole, but for the folks who were all the way around the chain, the entire team including the surgeons. And what they taught us was that designing a checklist to help people handle complexity actually involves more difficulty than I had understood. You have to think about things like pause points. You need to identify the moments in a process when you can actually catch a problem before it’s a danger and do something about it. You have to identify that this is a before-takeoff checklist. And then you need to focus on the killer items. An aviation checklist, like this one for a single-engine plane, isn’t a recipe for how to fly a plane, it’s a reminder of the key things that get forgotten or missed if they’re not checked.”

“And that brings us to skill number three, the ability to implement this, to get colleagues across the entire chain to actually do these things. And it’s been slow to spread. This is not yet our norm in surgery — let alone making checklists to go onto childbirth and other areas. There’s a deep resistance because using these tools forces us to confront that we’re not a system, forces us to behave with a different set of values. Just using a checklist requires you to embrace different values from the ones we’ve had, like humility, discipline, teamwork. This is the opposite of what we were built on: independence, self-sufficiency, autonomy.”

“Making systems work is the great task of my generation of physicians and scientists. But I would go further and say that making systems work, whether in health care, education, climate change, making a pathway out of poverty, is the great task of our generation as a whole. In every field, knowledge has exploded, but it has brought complexity, it has brought specialization. And we’ve come to a place where we have no choice but to recognize, as individualistic as we want to be, complexity requires group success. We all need to be pit crews now.”