This article is more than 13 years old.

The state’s Health Care Quality and Cost Council faces a challenge that is bigger than the Big Dig. After all, that project took 20 years to spend 15 billion dollars. The state spends that much in health care about every four months. If our health care access legislation is to succeed, the Council must find a way to bring one sixth of the state’s economy, the state’s largest industry, under control.

At the first meeting of the Council in the New Year on January 2, Dr. Don Berwick, president and CEO of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement and an elected member of the nation's prestigious Institute of Medicine, provided just the right analogy when he compared our health care system to a “commons” - the space at the center of colonial towns where folks would bring their livestock to graze. If everyone acted only in their self-interest, the land would soon be overgrazed and all would lose. The challenge, he said, was to find a way to inspire those involved to view their duty as not only a personal gain, but also as a contribution to the good of the community. One needed to only look at those attending the meeting - consultants and those advocating for various constituencies - to know that this would be a hard sell. But we ignore him at our own peril.

Each of us - physicians, nurses, insurers, and all involved with delivering care, as well as patients - needs to find ways to contribute to the success of this effort and put in something for the common good. Acting strictly in our own interest, or the tired old approach of saying that what helps our group ultimately helps everyone, will only give us more of what we already have - an industry that is edging out other sectors of the economy even as it delivers a service that contains too much waste. According to Dr. Berwick, the level of waste in our health care system is "phenomenally high" - accounting for as much as 30 percent of the health care dollars we spend.

The Massachusetts Medical Society has convened a group of medical directors from physician groups across the state. A retreat was held in early December when we brought in national experts to give us insight into how we can use data to understand and improve the value of the care that we deliver. We intend to build on this effort by reaching out to the plans and the state to see how we can further the agenda of bringing better value to the care that doctors deliver. Physicians, given the right information, can work to remove duplication and unneeded elements from a plan of care. And patients, knowing that their doctors rather than outsiders are addressing this issue, will be more comfortable with the results.

Dr. Berwick said that he would like to challenge all medical specialties to find ten things that they could improve upon to cut waste out of the health care system. I believe that his challenge should extend to all in health care and that the public needs to become more aware that more care does not mean better care. Those speaking up at the council need to go beyond recommending what should be done; they need to let everyone know what they will be contributing to the “common.”

Dr. Magee is president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

This program aired on January 8, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.