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How Atul Gawande is Being Misunderstood

Everyone is reading Atul Gawande’s article in the New Yorker about health care costs. But I think most people misunderstand Gawande’s major point.

Everyones At It

Everyone’s At It

The conventional wisdom on Gawande’s piece is this: our problems are caused by bad incentives in our health care system. They encourage doctors to overprescribe care. McAllen, Texas is the poster child of this problem. If we can change the economic incentives, doctors will behave better. They will follow medical evidence, not their bottom lines, and from this will emerge a rational, affordable system.

This isn’t what Gawande is saying.

Gawande went to McAllen expecting to see a microcosm of the American health care system. As expected, he found excessive, even abusive spending, and a culture that encouraged both. But he also found that in nearby El Paso, Texas, medicine wasn’t practiced this way, nor in most other places in the country. And so he came up with a surprising insight. Yes, McAllen is a reflection of what can happen based on the incentives in the system. But if every incentive works this way, why is McAllen such an outlier?

Gawande concluded it had to do with the “culture” of medicine in each community. Most doctors go into medicine to help patients. In Gawande’s visit to McAllen, he heard stories that money had become more important than quality care. What Gawande realized was how important this question of “culture” was to how McAllen became McAllen. It made him think of places that had a completely different culture, like the Mayo Clinic.

The doctors of the Mayo Clinic decided, some decades ago, to put medicine first:

The core tenet of the Mayo Clinic is “The needs of the patient come first” — not the convenience of the doctors, not their revenues. The doctors and the nurses, and even the janitors, sat in meetings almost weekly, working on ideas to make the service and the care better, not to get more money out of patients. . . . Mayo promoted leaders who focused first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially feasible.

Gawande couldn’t believe how much time doctors at the Mayo clinic spent with each patient, and how readily they could interact with colleagues on difficult problems. While it is true, the Mayo Clinic has financial arrangements that make this easier, it is the culture of patient care that dominates, not questions of pay:

No one there actually intends to do fewer expensive scans and procedures than is done elsewhere in the country. The aim is to raise quality and to help doctors and other staff members work as a team. But almost by happenstance, the result has been lower costs.

“When doctors put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get more thinking and less testing,” [Denis] Cortes [CEO of the Mayo Clinic] told me

And this is where Gawande is being misunderstood.

The “cost conundrum” that Gawande talks about is not about how to cut costs, or how to change who pays for health care and how much. It’s deeper than that. Gawande’s point is that we have been fixated for so long on the question of money in health care that we are starting to forget about medicine. By focusing on ever more clever ways to pay doctors, we have systematically undervalued everything that makes for high quality medicine. Things like time with your patient, thinking about his or her problems, consulting with colleagues, and coming up with sound advice.

We discount what he calls the “astonishing” accomplishments of the Mayo Clinic on this score. And instead of designing health care reform around ways to help more hospitals become like the Mayo Clinic, we choose instead to think about money, to focus our attention on how to cut costs in places like McAllen.

Politically, it makes sense – it’s convenient to have a poster child like McAllen to explain why one reform plan or another should become law. But the pity is that in this important time of reform we’re not talking about trying to put the needs of the patients first – to put medicine back in the center of health care. The pity is that in spite of the fact that everyone’s reading Gawande’s article, his most important insight is being misunderstood.

If we continue to be focused on money over medicine, we will lose the “war over the culture of medicine – the war over whether our country’s anchor model with be Mayo or McAllen.”

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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