Boston physician Atul Gawande, who pioneered a project to reduce post-surgical deaths in South Carolina hospitals, was named this week as the CEO for a new nonprofit health care venture by Amazon.com, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan Chase.
The project's high-powered organizers, who have been largely quiet on details, are looking to reform employee-based health care.
“We said at the outset that the degree of difficulty is high and success is going to require an expert’s knowledge, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a written statement. “Atul embodies all three, and we’re starting strong as we move forward in this challenging and worthwhile endeavor.”
After the hire was announced, Gawande himself highlighted on Twitter his success reducing deaths in the Palmetto State.
Our work in South Carolina highlights the impact of health systems innovation. We scaled the @WHO Surgical Safety Checklist w/ @SCHospitals and saw post-surgical deaths reduced by more than 20%. @Forbes Read: https://t.co/iOHlhHJUgh & More: https://t.co/QetinBMhFb— Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) June 20, 2018
"Our work in South Carolina highlights the impact of health systems innovation," he tweeted. "We scaled the @WHO Surgical Safety Checklist w/ @SCHospitals and saw post-surgical deaths reduced by more than 20%."
Research published last year in the Annals of Surgery found South Carolina hospitals reported significantly fewer deaths among post-surgical patients when operating room staff used the checklists.
The study was conducted in partnership with the S.C. Hospital Association, Boston-based Ariadne Labs and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Fourteen South Carolina hospitals participated in the research. Post-surgical deaths actually increased among hospitals that did not adopt the checklists. The research did not identify which medical centers took part in the project.
"At the beginning of this trial, all the hospitals signed off that they would give it a try," Gawande told The Post and Courier last year.
The fact that only one-quarter of all 60-plus hospitals in the state actually completed the program testifies to its difficulty, he said. But changing operating room culture takes time, he acknowledged.
Dr. Prabhakar Baliga, chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, called Gawande's work "disruptive" — in a good way.
"He’s got the track record. He’s clearly got the background and he’s got great potential to lead something like this," Baliga said. "He’s clearly innovative."
Gawande first approached the S.C. Hospital Association in 2010 about collaborating on the checklist project. Thorton Kirby, president of the association, praised the companies' decision to hire Gawande as CEO.
"They want to make change at scale," Kirby said. "When someone can take a community of hospitals and providers and make change and spread it across that entire community, it’s relevant to generalized reform conversations."
Furthermore, Kirby called Gawande a thought leader and an active listener.
"He imagines. And he has a lot of humility," he said. "I just think that is a really compelling mix of personal characteristics."