Gawande Will Lead Boston-Based Health Co. Formed By Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway And JPMorgan Chase

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Dr. Atul Gawande in 2017 (Courtesy Bret Hartman/TED Conference via Flickr)
Dr. Atul Gawande in 2017 (Courtesy Bret Hartman/TED Conference via Flickr)

In January, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase announced they were banding together to form a new company with the goal of providing high-quality health care with lower costs for their American employees.

On Wednesday, the three companies announced they had chosen a leader, and a city, for their new initiative: Dr. Atul Gawande, in Boston. 

"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," Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, said in a statement. "Atul embodies all three."

Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a Harvard professor. He launched Ariadne Labs in 2012 to expand innovations like his surgical checklist, and to look for ways to improve childbirth and end-of-life care.

"I'm thrilled to be named CEO of this healthcare initiative. I have devoted my public health career to building scalable solutions for better healthcare delivery that are saving lives, reducing suffering, and eliminating wasteful spending both in the U.S. and across the world," said Gawande. "This work will take time but must be done. The system is broken, and better is possible."

Gawande's best-selling books, like his most recent one, "Being Mortal," have boosted his international profile. He has not run a large firm; the Ariadne Lab website lists fewer than 100 employees.

But some colleagues say the perception that he doesn't have the management skills for this position is not accurate.

"Atul has a strong track record in implementation and management," said Don Berwick, a former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and president emeritus the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

Berwick points to a program Gawande finished last year that cut deaths after surgery in South Carolina by 22 percent.

"He masterminded a project on safe surgery that affected almost every hospital in South Carolina," Berwick said. "He has the executive competence to do this job, I'm fully confident."

It's not clear where the company will focus immediately. The three business leaders have said Americans could make more use of technology to improve care. Jaime Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, mentioned telemedicine, wellness programs and end-of-life care in a letter to shareholders in April.

"As employers and as leaders, addressing healthcare is one of the most important things we can do for our employees and their families," Dimon said in a statement. "We're so fortunate to have attracted such an extraordinary leader and innovator as Atul."

One of the most influential employer groups focused on health care also praised Gawande's appointment.

"He thinks outside the box and is very passionate about fixing what ails our healthcare system," said Brian Marcotte, CEO of the National Business Group on Health, where most members are Fortune 500 companies.

Marcotte says it would make sense for the new company to focus on technology because there is a lot of interest in telemedicine and other types of virtual health — physical therapy, chronic disease management and mental health care — monitored or delivered in the home.

"Amazon's in many people's homes," he said. "The ability to reach people through Amazon creates an opportunity to reach people in a more natural way."

Dimon, Bezos and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet said in January that their new company would be "free from profit-making incentives and constraints."

Gawande's task, as defined by Buffet in January, is enormous.

"The ballooning costs of [health care] act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy," said Buffet in a statement. "Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable."

Gawande, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview, saying "he is taking time to listen and learn before discussing any future direction."

Gawande's bosses and colleagues posted notes congratulating him and endorsing his efforts.

"Ariadne Labs and Atul have our full support as he continues on his mission to advance care and outcomes for people around the globe," said Brigham Health president Dr. Betsy Nabel. "We are delighted that this venture will reside in Boston, and look forward to transforming medicine through collaboration and innovation."

The 52-year-old surgeon has told friends and colleagues that he plans to continue performing surgeries, writing and running Ariadne Labs.

This article was originally published on June 20, 2018.

This segment aired on June 20, 2018.


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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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