I’ve nothing against him personally, but when I’m urged to read Atul Gawande’s books about aspects of surgical practice, particularly outwith the technical skills, I wonder what makes him such an expert. Here’s the evidence:
Qualified in Medicine at Harvard in 1995 aged 30
Master of Public Health degree in 1999, then 6 years of residency training in surgery – ie. junior doctor acquiring experience – till 2003.
He spent quite a bit of time from the late 80’s involved in writing magazine articles and working in Democratic politics.
His first book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, came out in 2002, when he was still a junior doctor in training, far from the finished product. The next one Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, was released 5 years later. I assume he’d been busy in clinical practice for this time, with possibly some of the previously noted extracurricular activities getting in the way occasionally.
An NHS consultant surgeon, 5 years in, working in a busy hospital is, in my view still very much on the learning curve. ‘Surgical maturity’, I would say, is at least 10 years in. Some people never get there.
Gawande’s Wiki entry implies that from about 2009 onwards he was doing more and more non-surgical things, fair enough, he seems an interested and accomplished fellow, but I feel very strongly that the way you get better in medicine is, I’m afraid, long hours, year in year out, in the wards, the theatres and the clinics. It’s a lifelong thing, even if – as I do – one has plenty of other interests.
One of the classic scenarios in the NHS is the consultant who having got to the top – as it was perceived in the old days – realises that he or she wants to get out. Often ‘management’ and ‘governance’ are the dubious beneficiaries of their career move, which amazingly usually involves telling working clinicians what to do. Not that I’m accusing Gawande of that, but some individuals closer to home, certainly.
Anyway, this preamble is to praise the benefits of long, hard won clinical experience, especially of the surgical kind. There is a significant difference between prescribing a drug – which could do harm – and opening someone up with a knife, which is intrinsically harmful before it gets better, even if everything goes well.
Is there a plausible alternative to working the hours? I think not. Don’t get me started on the world of ‘simulated surgery‘.
All of which brings me to a fascinating interview with both Stephen Westaby (69), heart surgeon and Henry Marsh (67), neurosurgeon. Both have a public profile, both have performed thousands and thousands of challenging high end operations, for the NHS. With respect to the aforementioned competition, these are the guys that I want to hear from. They’ve also written books for the general public, as it happens.
There are numerous gems in the interview, here’s some tasters:
HM: We have this very complex relationship with patients. It’s not one of straightforward altruism at all; it’s a very difficult relationship. You have to be both hard and soft at the same time. You certainly don’t want to be empathetic. If empathy means you actually feel what your patients are going through, actually . . . you can’t do it.
…the problem is you could spend the entire national income on healthcare and everybody still dies — there is 100 per cent mortality — so you have to decide somehow where to set your artificial floor on that bottomless pit.
…[When he was PM] David Cameron made this speech about we must have “zero harm” in the NHS, which struck me as the most incredibly stupid thing to say because it suggests that when anything goes wrong, therefore somebody’s to blame. The whole point about medicine is it often goes wrong. The decision whether to operate or not, to recommend an operation or not, is all about probabilities, and these are very subjective, difficult judgments. Everything we do is in the face of uncertainty and a lot of the time patients come to harm. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody’s at fault. So I thought that was a very, very naive and rather silly thing to say.
SW: The job is difficult enough without having the press and everybody else on your back. A British heart surgeon had the idea when he became the medical director of the NHS that surgeons’ death rates should be published and available for the newspapers. Let me ask you: which surgeons would have the highest death rates, the worst ones or the best ones? The best surgeons attract the worst patients like a magnet. So if you want to make your best surgeons defensive, you start counting the bodies and putting it into the public arena. My particular branch of the profession is now risk-averse. Fewer heart surgeons want to come to Britain to do heart surgery and the British especially don’t want to do heart surgery. They’re long operations, you can end up operating all night, every day of the week, and it’s taxing and it’s rotten when people die. It’s totally rotten to have to go out of an operating theatre and tell a couple of young parents that their baby’s just died on the operating table. It’s misery. None of us lose patients because we’re careless or don’t care. So I’ve seen my profession wrecked, I’m afraid.
HM: Forty years ago, the power structure in hospitals in this country was very simple. There was a senior doctor, a senior nurse and one manager, and basically the hospitals are run more or less by the senior doctors, for better or for worse. Now you have a whole series of competing pyramids. The management, the doctors, the nurses — more or less autonomous now — the other paramedics and physios and people like that, so there’s a real sense of nobody being in charge. I would go to work in the morning and I wouldn’t know what I was going to do that day because it all depends. Is there a bed? Is there an intensive-care unit bed? Is there a bed on the high-dependency unit? You have to negotiate with each of these individual power structures, it’s deeply chaotic
…Another example is that, after the Stafford scandal [over nursing care] and the Francis inquiry [into it], the General Medical Council wrote to all the doctors saying that when a mistake is made you must apologise and then it said that this is usually the duty of the senior clinician; in other words, whoever makes the mistake, muggins here has to go and say sorry. And then thirdly it added that for an apology to be meaningful, it must be genuine. If the GMC can’t see there’s a problem here — if an apology is compulsory, how can you force it to be genuine? Well, the answer is that it is genuine if the senior doctors have a sense of authority, if they feel they’re trusted and then they do feel responsible for what happens in their department.
Just superb, and not calculated or self-serving, simply real world experience of something very important. Westaby’s line “The best surgeons attract the worst patients like a magnet” is very very true.
I’ll give him the final word: