Gawande Says Goal Is Better Health Care for 1 Million Workers

(Bloomberg) -- Atul Gawande, named to head a new health-care venture jointly formed by Amazon.com Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., said he’s now in a position to reduce waste and improve medical treatment for a million workers.

“We will come to a place where we can generate scalable solutions that change the practice of medicine,” Gawande said at the America’s Health Insurance Plans conference in San Diego on Thursday, a day after he was appointed chief executive officer of the health-care partnership. “It’s a long road, but it clearly is possible.”

The not-for-profit startup aims to improve care and lower costs for the three companies by creating systems that connect complex medical services with patient counseling while reducing waste caused by irrelevant tests or costly treatment that doesn’t improve quality of life, Gawande said, citing his research as a medical journalist. Gawande will start at the Boston-based company, which has yet to be named, on July 9, according to a statement.

“I feel incredibly lucky in this role that I will get one million new patients and they will be ordinary people across the country,” he said, noting the diverse needs of workers in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, JPMorgan’s banks, and railways and paint factories owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

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The Amazon-JPMorgan-Berkshire partnership will be independent from the three firms, whose leaders formed the venture as a way of contending with what Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett called a “tapeworm” eating the U.S. economy. Since announcing the project in January, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Buffett have said it could take years to show results.

Employers are the largest providers of health insurance in the U.S., giving more than 150 million people access to coverage. Insurance premiums have soared 55 percent over the past decade, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, contributing to the growing dissatisfaction voiced by employers.

Gawande, 52, is a renowned surgeon, writer and public health thought leader. He practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. He is founding executive director of the health systems innovation center, Ariadne Labs. Gawande also is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of four books on health care.

He rose to prominence among health-care policy experts with a 2009 New Yorker article, “The Cost Conundrum,” that examined why medical care was vastly more expensive in some parts of the U.S. than others, despite little difference in the sickness or health of people getting it. He has also reported on the effectiveness of checklists to coordinate care and reduce errors that lead to deaths.

In his speech Thursday, Gawande also said:

  • It took five years to substantially reduce mortality among previously uninsured people who received coverage, led by reductions in death caused by chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and HIV.
  • Insurance must cover pre-existing conditions, because “life is a series of chronic conditions.”
  • Catastrophic health-care coverage is ineffective because many people don’t have enough money in the bank to cover their deductibles.
  • “The goal of a health-care system is not survival at all costs. The goal of a health-care system is not a good death. The goal is a good life.”

Gawande said that his talk on Thursday, based on writing he’s been doing for years, had been planned months before his appointment.

“But I appreciate that, the day after my new job for Amazon, Berkshire-Hathaway and JPMorgan’s new non-profit venture in health care is announced, that it’ll take on some greater significance,” he said. “And I’m delighted that that’s true, that many things that I’ve been talking about could get to matter.”

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