Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pondering Leadership

This blog often talks about the failure of leaders in health care. The April, 2010, issue of Harvard Business Review boasts an entire "Spotlight" Section on this subject.

Perhaps the two most interesting articles in this section, both by big names--Atul Gawande and Tom Lee--among today's medical chattering classes, are entitled, respectively, "Health care needs a new kind of hero," and "Turning doctors into leaders." The first, an interview, first touts the good doctor's vaunted emphasis on checklists, then goes on to plead for improved training in team-play: "we don't train physicians how to lead teams or be team members."

The second, by Dr. Lee, is more substantive. The network president of Boston's Partners Healthcare System and CEO of Partners Community HealthCare, formed quite a while back by Brigham and Women's and MGH joining forces, Lee makes a longer version of the same argument which boils down, essentially to, "docs need to learn to play nice."

He starts with the plea we've heard so often before, it sounds like elevator music:
The problem with health care is people like me—doctors (mostly men) in our fifties and beyond, who learned medicine when it was more art and less finance. We were taught to go to the hospital before dawn, stay until our patients were stable, focus on the needs of each patient before us, and not worry about costs. We were taught to review every test result with our own eyes—to depend on no one. The only way to ensure quality was to adopt high personal standards for ourselves and then meet them. Now, at many health care institutions and practices, we are in charge. And that’s a problem, because health care today needs a fundamentally different approach—and a new breed of leaders.
Seems unexceptionable, as far as it goes. Maybe I'm just a crank who preceded Dr. Lee at his alma mater by, oh, say, a decade or so, but I'm feeling just a wee bit brassed off at hearing, yet again, Pogo's same tired old "we have met the enemy and he is us" plaint. Here it is, from Dr. Lee himself:
The usual suspects have surprisingly small roles. Greed and incompetence surely exist, but economists agree that they don’t account for double-digit annual cost increases on their own.
Oh really? So let me see here, what we really need is more folks like Tom Lee, folks who are willing to apply "Tough Medicine" and understand that "Performance Matters." A whiff of the self-serving here. Being "tough" here means being a good measurement wonk, holding doctors to "results" standards.

While one could never wholly disagree with this sentiment, or conviction, or whatever it is, what's missing is the big picture. For starters, the problem of executives with purely technocratic solutions.

Which is partly why, in this observer's humble view, we continue to have this "anechoic effect." That's the one critics of the larger defects in the health care system don't just get drowned out by technocratic Pogo-talk. They really aren't much heard at all.

The defects include rotten information technology, corrupt hospital and insurance leaders, and insurance companies cocky enough to crow, eleven days after HR 4872, and now quoting Secretary Sebelius, they're "allowed to insure a child, but exclude treatments for that child’s pre-existing condition."

Why don't the self-professed next-gen leaders ever talk about this stuff? A recent New York Times op-ed piece suggested one answer. I read it and slapped my forehead, "of caws!"

Adam Cohen, the author, is describing why the Cassandras--hey, there are a few of those in this blog, eh wot?--don't get heard. Why they disappear into the anechoic chamber. In this case, on the topic of the 2008-2009 meltdown in the broader economy.
Incompetence often plays a role. So does ideology: one reason [Federal Reserve governor Edward] Gramlich, a Democratic nominee, was ignored was that his warnings clashed with the antiregulatory convictions of the Bush administration. In other cases, to borrow Al Gore’s phrase, an “inconvenient truth” imposes burdens that people don’t want or threatens powerful interests.
Cassandras warning about the Catholic Church's abuses, about Bernie Madoff, about 9-11: you can find 'em all. But Cohen's is not a rant. It's a reasoned explanation of why warnings don't get listened to.

So here are a couple warnings. Neither Tom Lee-style technocratic "let's pull up our socks" answers, nor HR 4872, get anywhere near solving the problems that continue to plague this country's bloated health care system. Primary care continues to circle the drain. Health care leaders continue to line their own pockets, basically betting against the system's ability to sustain this percentage of the GDP [this blog, passim].

I guess it's just the old dance. Leaders in lofty positions in Harvard organizations learn to measure their words and advance their own "be like me" agendas, while the Cassandras sit out there in the blogosphere and thump their chests.

But wouldn't it be grand if just occasionally, the Tom Lees of the world grew some cojones and really stood up to those who're milking our system for everything it's worth? Or are they too busy managing their own conflicts of interest and sweetheart deals?

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