High Stakes

Hope in the Hype: Atul Gawande’s New CEO Job

Hope in the Hype: Atul Gawande's New CEO Job

Last month in this space, we talked about the golden age of BS and mentioned the untitled, undefined healthcare venture being launched by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase.

Last week, the still-unnamed, still-undefined company named as CEO Dr. Atul Gawande, whose Twitter bio reads “Surgeon, Writer, Researcher, Dilettante.”

He’s not being modest and leaving out his vast experience running organizations, because he doesn’t have any. Hiring Gawande is just another wave of substance-free attention, and more BS, right?


There’s no shortage of healthcare industry insiders questioning the pick and Gawande’s fitness for the job (which, to be clear, is still very unclear). But that probably means his bosses are on to something.

Industry insiders have reason to be shook: These three parent companies have a market cap in excess of $1.5 trillion. And they aren’t trying to build a healthcare company, they’re trying to build a new healthcare paradigm.

If ever there were an opportunity to install a “vision CEO,” this is it. For one, there will be no shortage of operational leaders drawn to this challenge and the opportunity to help Gawande make a meaningful difference within this boondoggle of an industry.

Second, the healthcare industry is so broken and the vacuum of visionary leadership so yawning that the idea of a person who could steer it anywhere new – even if the destination and the plan are undefined – gives people hope.

But what is most promising about the prospect of giving Gawande all the money in the world to fix healthcare is that unlike all the other innovators, disruptors and grifters who have made headlines recently, his most significant contribution so far has been spectacularly granular and unflashy.

Specifically, he’s advocated for the use of a checklist designed to reduce mortality among surgery patients. The checklist is both revolutionary – some systems that have implemented it have seen mortality rates drop by 25% — and so simple as to seem reductive: confirming the patient’s name, for example, is on the list.

He’s received a lot of backlash. In The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande wrote: “We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

Maybe our idea of healthcare industry leadership needs updating. It doesn’t make sense to hire a titan of the American healthcare system to completely re-imagine American healthcare delivery. Instead, go get someone who has a history of looking at things from a different angle, a history of creating meaningful change. When you combine that unique perspective with someone who can make checklists heroic, you get Atul Gawande.

What are they going to do? How’s it going to work? When will they see results?

Who knows? But we’d bet on the guy with the checklist.


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