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What's Next for Atul Gawande as CEO of Amazon-Backed Healthcare Initiative?

Analysis  |  By Steven Porter  
   June 22, 2018

Reactions to this week's news that the Boston-based surgeon, professor, and journalist was selected to lead the highly anticipated venture have been largely positive. Now the work begins.

After months of anticipation and speculation surrounding an ambitious, albeit vague, healthcare initiative backed by Amazon and its deep-pocketed partners, the news this week that Atul Gawande will serve as the venture's chief executive officer received a largely optimistic reaction.

As a practicing surgeon, Harvard professor, and journalist who has authored four bestselling books, Gawande is a recognized thought leader in identifying solutions to the U.S. healthcare system's problems. Expectations are high. The question now is whether Gawande will be able to turn thought into action and action into results.

Related: Can Atul Gawande Fix Healthcare? Maybe.

"The proof is in the pudding," says Rod Hochman, MD, president and CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health in Renton, Washington, encouraging his fellow healthcare leaders to proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism in the face of Amazon's partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase.

"I applaud the vision, but now you've got to produce results, demonstrate how you're going to do that," Hochman tells HealthLeaders Media.

Gawande will be one of many CEOs pursuing innovative strategies with the potential to transform the healthcare market, so this Amazon-backed undertaking is significant but not the only show worth watching, Hochman says. It should be considered alongside model-shifting moves by trailblazing health systems, the government, and private companies like Optum, CVS Health, and Aetna, he adds.

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Gawande hasn't yet had the opportunity to demonstrably improve healthcare for Amazon employees. But his boosters contend that he has already demonstrated success, not only in compelling scholarship but in hands-on improvements as well.

"Atul is a person who's used to working at very large scale with major partners," says Donald M. Berwick, MD, MPP, FRCP, president emeritus and senior fellow with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

As evidence, Berwick points to practical improvements in surgical safety Gawande has made through major projects in the U.S. and abroad touting lessons from his book The Checklist Manifesto. Gawande's work with the South Carolina Hospital Association, for example, has been credited with a 20% reduction in post-surgical deaths.

What's more, Gawande's founding of Ariadne Labs at Brigham & Women's Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—a project for which Berwick serves as an adviser—demonstrates that Gawande has the skills his new job will demand, Berwick says.

"Now it's a multimillion-dollar enterprise with projects in countries all over the world affecting literally millions of lives, so he's somebody who has built a large organization from scratch," Berwick says, "and I think that testifies to his managerial capabilities."

Related: 4 Insights from Atul Gawande's Influential 'Cost Conundrum' Article

Healthcare stocks took a hit when Amazon and its partners announced their intentions in January, but the market response was more muted this week.

Even so, Gawande's selection sent a very clear message to the rest of the industry, says Rich Roth, chief strategic innovation officer at San Francisco–based Dignity Health.

"I think that it sent a strong signal that this effort is going to be broader than just those three organizations," Roth says.

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"Here you have three business entities picking a CEO who has a distinguished career leading on the human side of healthcare, someone who focuses on public health, on publishing, on putting humanity first," he says.

Roth advises his fellow healthcare executives to respond to this signal by joining the push toward value-based care rather than waiting to be disrupted.

While remaining skeptical of how big Gawande's impact could in reality become, Hochman says it's clear the new CEO has a tremendous ability to synthesize information and communicate it in a way that people understand.

"I think it's an interesting choice," Hochman adds. "I think it just depends what he does next."

Gawande's first official day as CEO of the unnamed Boston-based entity is July 9.

“I applaud the vision, but now you've got to produce results, demonstrate how you're going to do that.”

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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