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Atul Gawande on Pit Crews and Cowboys: Lessons for Lawyers?

Read through Atul Gawande’s recent commencement address to the most recent graduates of Harvard Medical School and ponder, as I have been trying to do, whether it maps onto lawyers and legal education.  There is lots here, too, for students of innovation and creativity generally.

A taste:

I do not believe society should be forced to choose between whether our children get a great education or their teachers get great medical care. But only we can create the local medical systems that make both possible. You who graduate today will join these systems as they are born, propel them, work on the policies that accelerate them, and create the innovations they need. Making systems work in health care—shifting from corralling cowboys to producing pit crews—is the great task of your and my generation of clinicians and scientists.

You are the generation on the precipice of a transformation medicine has no choice but to undergo, the riders in the front car of the roller coaster clack-clack-clacking its way up to the drop. The revolution that remade how other fields handle complexity is coming to health care, and I think you sense it. I see this in the burst of students obtaining extra degrees in fields like public health, business administration, public policy, information technology, education, economics, engineering. Of some two hundred students graduating today, more than thirty-five are getting such degrees, intuiting that ordinary medical training wouldn’t prepare you for the world to come. Two years ago, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement started its Open School, offering free online courses in systems skills such as outcome measurement, quality improvement, implementation, and leadership. They hoped a few hundred medical students would enroll. Forty-five thousand did. You’ve recognized faster than any of us that the way we train, practice, and innovate has to change. Even the laboratory science must change—toward generating treatments and diagnostics that do not stand in isolation but fit in as reliable components of an integrated, economical, and effective package of care for the needs patients have.

The problems of making health care work are large. The complexities are overwhelming governments, economies, and societies around the world. We have every indication, however, that where people in medicine combine their talents and efforts to design organized service to patients and local communities, extraordinary change can result.

Recently, you might be interested to know, I met an actual cowboy. He described to me how cowboys do their job today, herding thousands of cattle. They have tightly organized teams, with everyone assigned specific positions and communicating with each other constantly. They have protocols and checklists for bad weather, emergencies, the inoculations they must dispense. Even the cowboys, it turns out, function like pit crews now. It may be time for us to join them.

1 thought on “Atul Gawande on Pit Crews and Cowboys: Lessons for Lawyers?”

  1. Law schools need to *aspire* to teach cowboys. At this point all students get is theory of the cow. Law firms are then in charge of teaching actual cowboy skills, and presumably some of the better ones will eventually make their way to checklists, protocols, communications skills, etc.

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