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Atul Gawande named to head cost-cutting health-care venture from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase

Surgeon Atul Gawande speaks in New York City in 2014. (Brad Barket/Getty Images for the New Yorker)
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Renowned surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande will lead a new company aimed at reducing health-care costs, a joint venture by Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway that has attracted widespread attention and hope that it could disrupt the American health-care system.

The unnamed company, based in Boston, will be focused on using technology to make health care more transparent, affordable and simple for the more than 1 million employees who work for the three companies. It was unveiled in January with little detail about how it would achieve its aims, unleashing months of speculation about what it could do, including disrupting and simplifying medicine in the United States, and aggregating the purchasing power and clout of three big employers.

Choosing Gawande, a practicing surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a writer for the New Yorker magazine,  suggests that the company will be focused on innovation that could ripple broadly. Gawande was praised Wednesday by colleagues as a creative, visionary leader who has devoted his career to devising health-care solutions that can be widely adopted to improve surgery, childbirth and end-of-life care around the world. He is best known for making surgery safer through the implementation of a simple checklist.

"He's never one to shy away from a problem, particularly a problem that appears to be unsolvable," said Elizabeth Nabel, the president of Brigham Health. "For Atul, it’s always about reducing suffering, saving lives and creating efficiencies in the health system. So I think the best is still ahead of him. He's such a creative and talented individual, I think we don’t know yet what his scalable solutions will be."

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With the deep pockets and support of three of America's best known business leaders -- Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase -- the initiative has generated widespread excitement that it could disrupt the lumbering, $3.3 trillion American health-care system, which is riddled with inefficiencies and financial incentives that don't result in better care.

(Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“As employers and as leaders, addressing health care is one of the most important things we can do for our employees and their families, as well as for the communities where we all work and live,” Dimon said in a statement.

Several colleagues said that based on Gawande's track record, this could be a transformative moment for American health care more broadly. He was praised for his gift for distilling complex problems to their essence and looking for simple, repeatable interventions that could improve patients' lives, whether in elite academic teaching hospitals or in clinics in some of the poorest countries in the world.

“I have devoted my public health career to building scalable solutions for better health care delivery that are saving lives, reducing suffering, and eliminating wasteful spending both in the U.S. and across the world,” Gawande said in a statement. “Now I have the backing of these remarkable organizations to pursue this mission with even greater impact for more than a million people, and in doing so incubate better models of care for all.”

In 2012, Gawande founded Ariadne Labs, a joint center between Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that develops simple tools to improve the quality of health care and reduce medical errors. Ariadne has focused on reducing avoidable C-sections in the United States, creating checklists to improve surgical safety and developing a conversation guide to help doctors learn what matters most to patients who are seriously ill, to better align their care with their goals.

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Gawande will transition from executive director to chairman of Ariadne Labs, which has 100 employees and $20 million in revenue. He will remain a practicing surgeon and continue writing for the New Yorker. He will take charge of the new company on July 9.

The venture said it won't be hemmed in by the need to show an immediate return on investment. The statement announcing Gawande's role said it will be independent and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints."

Neel Shah, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and part of the core faculty at Ariadne Labs said that the most important lesson he has learned from Gawande, whom he considers a mentor, is that it is essential to clearly define a problem before trying to solve it. Shah recalled that as a young faculty member, he was eager to tackle a dozen ideas that had been percolating inside of him since he was a medical resident. Gawande told him to slow down and take the time to sharply define the problem, to make sure it would have the biggest impact possible.

"We can try to use innovation to try to simplify the complexity around us, and that's what Atul is doing constantly in everything he does from his writing to his scientific work," Shah said. "It's really just taking the 100 things you could do and then boiling it down to the three things that are the highest yield, the most impactful and most feasible to do, to make the biggest difference."