The Complexity of Health Care

If you never heard about Atul Gawande, M.D., you don’t know the best medical writer in the world. As a medical writer myself, I consider my naming him that to be about the highest praise I can offer.

When the people at the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists told me that Dr. Gawande would be the keynote speaker at this year’s meeting in Boston, I didn’t think twice about accepting their invitation. Listening to his address this morning, I was as impressed by his talk as I was earlier by reading his three books and his many articles in the New Yorker magazine.

But if Dr. Gawande were just a writer, this organization of practicing endocrinologists wouldn’t have made him their keynote speaker today. This incredibly talented young man, born in 1965, also happens to be associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Boston — two list just two of his many positions.

At least he didn’t have to travel far in order to speak to speak to about 1,000 of us today. I made sure to get to the auditorium early so I could sit in the front row to photograph him.

Dr. Atul Gawande Speaking This Morning to Endocrinologists

I also wanted to take a close look at Dr. Gawande to see if he looked frazzled from all his work. As you can see from my photo, somehow he looks quite relaxed.

Earlier in one of my articles here I named Dr. Gawande as as inspiration for my writing style. He even takes time to answer my emails when I write him. No wonder that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation a few years ago named him a MacArthur Fellow, which well deserves its nickname, “the genius award.”

President Obama cited Dr. Gawande’s article last year in the New Yorker, “The Cost Conundrum,” which used as an example the town of McAllen, Texas, to argue that unnecessary medical tests and procedures were a primary factor in driving up the cost of health care in this country. That article affected the President’s thinking dramatically, according to Senator Ron Wyden, and soon after its publication, he showed the article to a group of senators including Wyden and said, “This is what we’ve got to fix.”

Today, Dr. Gawande spoke on “Beyond Reform: Facing the Complexity of Health Care.” The key word is complexity.

He mentioned diabetes a couple of times in his talk. But for now please think of diabetes as subsumed within our country’s much broader health care problems. Here are some of the passages of Dr. Gawande’s talk that immediately caught my attention as I recorded them.

“The deepest struggle of health care is its complexity,” he said. “This is the reason why health care often doesn’t work. Just half a century ago medicine wasn’t either expensive nor effective.

“We have identified now more than 13,600 diagnoses. And for each of them we have identified steps in their care that can reduce people’s suffering, if not actually cure their disease. But that arsenal has now accumulated to become more than 6,000 drugs currently that you and I can prescribe and more than 4,000 medical and surgical procedures that we can provide.

“It’s incredibly hard. There is no industry in the world that has to provide 13,600 different service lines to every community in the country, let alone the world, and customize it to every customer. It is man’s most ambitious endeavor.

“The value it’s producing, though, is already excellent. Life expectancy has increased five years since 1960 and nearly all of it has accumulated after the age of 65. It’s brought longer lives and later disability, and that has produced its own problems, because during that same time period we have reduced the average retirement age from 67 to 61. Somewhere this is not going to add up (he smiles).

“We are at the point where the volume and complexity of the discoveries we have had in the last century has now exceeded our ability as individuals to delivery optimal care reliably and safely. I think we were fooled by penicillin. It was miraculous for a couple of reasons: number one was the idea that you could treat this incredible range of infectious disease that could never be reliably treated before, and the second thing was that this took only an injection.

“It was that simply. And it led us to imagine that the future of medicine would look like that. There would be an injection for cancer. There would be an injection for heart disease. But it hasn’t turned out to be anything like that at all.

“We were fooled into imagining that discovery was the only hard part and that execution would be easy. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“What’s missing is innovations for great care. It’s innovations not as we are used to thinking, where we think of drugs and devices as the sole carrier of innovation; it’s about systems innovation in health care.

“Making food of higher quality at lower cost was the fundamental question of the 20th century. Now, we are coming to a basic understanding of how we will make better care at lower cost. This is the fundamental issue of the 21th century.”

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Steve Parker, M.D. May 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I wonder where Gawande stands on SOLVING the issue of complexity.

    I wonder where he stands on the issue of individual liberty versus government intervention. The two nearly always move in opposite directions.

    I propose for everyone’s consideration that there is too much third party intervention in the realm of healthcare. That’s a major reason it’s too complicated. The key third parties are governments (state and federal) and health insurance companies.

    For those who say healthcare is so complicated that we must have these third parties, I point as an example to the act of buying a house for $150,000.

    That’s a major, complicated decision that many people handle on their own. It’s between the buyer and the seller. If the buyer wants to include a mortgage company, lawyer, or property appraiser, he’s at liberty to do so. The seller can hire advisors if needed.

    The buyer and seller can get the deal done on their own, if they wish. Simple.

    The current U.S. political climate favors more government intervention and less individual liberty. So I don’t expect any major breakthroughs on the cost and complexity of healthcare anytime soon.

    I predict growth in totally private “concierge” or “boutique” medical practice over the next few decades.

    Unless the politicians outlaw it.


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