Kent Bottles: Check Lists & Decision Trees v. Spontaneity & Imagination

January 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm 5 comments

The task of health care reform in 21st century America is to decrease per-capita cost of care and to increase the quality of care delivered to patients. It’s complicated.  A famous Rand study concluded that Americans only receive 55% of the care that science dictates. Patients intuitively believe that more health care is always beneficial. Medicare reformers would like to do comparative effectiveness research so that CMS and private insurers could wind up paying only for therapy that actually works. Some estimate that 30% of all care delivered in the United States is waste.  What some call waste, others label revenue, and Atul Gawande becomes famous for identifying waste/revenue in McAllen, Texas (

Neuroscience tells us that the smartest human can only keep track of seven variables at one time, and physicians tell us that diagnosis and treatment of a complicated patient can involve as many as 100 such variables.  Computers are good at cataloging, organizing, and retrieving information, but physicians are not yet routinely utilizing them at the point of care.  Computers are also good at allowing us to analyze large data sets and learn from experience.   Patients yearn for the warmth and caring of a doctor who really knows and cares about them. Behavioral economics pioneered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman taught us that human brains are designed with inherent biases that make us less than rational decision-makers.  We now know that human physicians and patients suffer from biases such as Pygmalion complex, confirmation bias, focusing illusion, incorrectly weighing initial numbers, and being more impressed with single cases than conclusions based on large data sets (

So how do we decrease per-capita cost and increase quality?  Thomas Goetz and Atul Gawande have written two new books that attempt to address the essential question.  Goetz’s The Decision Tree is not out yet, but one can get a pretty good idea about his approach from a Wired Magazine article ( and from a Website that is already available (  According to Goetz, each of us should participate in the data revolution and plug in personal health information from genetic testing, iPhone applications, lab tests, running journals, and other sources of relevant data into decision trees.  A decision tree has four components that can help us overcome our inherent biases and capture the wealth of personal health information:  input, process, decision, and end result.

In the Wired article, Goetz gives three powerful examples.  Should Teri Smieja have preemptive surgery to protect against cancer?  Should Frank Kozik give up smoking? How should my Twitter buddy, @accarmichael, deal with her chronic pain which has been difficult to diagnose and treat?  I especially liked the case of Frank Kozik whose inherent biases made the abstract risk of getting cancer not powerful enough to quit smoking.  But when his dentist told him smoking related gum disease was going to make his teeth fall out, he was motivated to stop (

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (New York: Metropolitan, 2009) argues that a simple checklist approach can help us deal with the complexity of caring for patients by “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.”  The same reasoning is behind the use of evidence-based medicine guidelines that ICSI produces ( and protocol-driven care that has made Brent James and Intermountain Health Care famous and influential (   It is hard to argue with this approach when one considers that a five-point checklist implemented at Johns Hopkins Hospital prevented 43 central line infections and eight deaths over 27 months.  A similar approach in Michigan ICUs decreased such infections by 66 percent within three months and saved more than 1,500 lives over a year and a half.

Why do doctors oppose checklists?  A survey of medical providers at eight hospitals about a Gawande checklist that cut surgical deaths in half revealed that 20 percent thought it was hard to use and did not improve safety.  However, 93 percent said they would want the checklist used if they were the patient undergoing the surgical procedure.  This is a great example of the confirmation bias at work in real life.  We have an inherent bias to discount contradictory data and so we continue to believe what we believe in the face of disturbing evidence.  The overconfidence bias is also probably at work here with the surgical teams who are impressed with their past successes and fail to be sufficiently self-critical.

Two book reviews of The Checklist Manifesto put their finger on drawbacks I felt when reading this important book about how to deal with the complexity of modern medicine.  Philip K. Howard in the Wall Street Journal review disagrees with Gawande that checklists are always “an unalloyed benefit.”  Howard also is not convinced that Gawande’s story of the Wal-Mart manager who drove a bulldozer through her ruined store to retrieve supplies for Katrina victims supports the use of checklists.  “Giving someone the authority to use her judgment means relying on individual creativity and improvisation – the opposite of a checklist (”  Sandeep Jauhar in the New York Times Book Review also chides Gawande on “almost no discussion of the unintended consequences of checklists” such as overuse of antibiotics in emergency rooms tied to a pneumonia checklist (

Most of us would also like to take Gawande to task for making us so jealous.  He is better looking, younger, skinnier, a regular New Yorker contributor, read by President Obama, a skilled practicing surgeon at Harvard, and a better writer than me. My knowledge of the behavioral economics concepts of maximizers and satisficers should allow me to deal with such jealousy by realizing that I will be much happier if I do not compare myself to others.  There, I feel better and I have made a full disclosure of my inherent bias against Atul Gawande.

This whole topic of the tension between Checklists and Decision Trees and Imagination and Spontaneity is also the subject in a way of Jerome Groopman’s “Health Care: Who Knows Best?” in the current issue of the New York Review of Books ( Groopman identifies Peter Orszag, director of the Ofice of Management and Budget, as the advocate for protocol/checklist/decision tree approach.  He writes that Orszag stated, “To alter providers’ behavior, it is probably necessary to combine comparative effectiveness research with aggressive promulgation of standards and changes in financial and other incentives.”

Groopman contrasts this approach with Cass Sunstein who works in the Obama White House overseeing regulatory affairs. Sunstein who co-authored the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness believes that inertia causes us to make unwise decisions about our wellness and health.  He advocates using default options as nudges in service of libertarian paternalism.  Groopman explains this concept by writing: “For example, to promote a healthy diet among teenagers, broccoli and carrots would be presented at eye level in the cafeteria and would be easily available, while it would take considerable effort for students to locate junk food, thereby nudging them into accepting a healthier diet. But all choices should be ‘libertarian’ – people should be free to opt out of ‘undesirable arrangements if they want to do so.’”  Groopman wonders who will carry the day with the President on health care reform.

We need checklists and decision trees to make sure that American patients get more than 55% of indicated care.  We need imagination and spontaneity because we are human and because not all situations and not all patients follow protocols.   We need to understand how our brain is designed with inherent biases that make rational decision-making dicey.   It is all rather complicated, isn’t it?

Entry filed under: Health Care Redesign. Tags: .

Kent Bottles: Why Smart People Don’t Learn from Failures Gary Oftedahl: Are We Done with Dunbar?


  • 1. CoachKiki Weingarten  |  January 25, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I want to see Gawande write a better blog post! Fantastic.

  • 2. Kelly  |  January 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I know I’m not a Harvard surgeon or a government planner. Heck, I’m not even a “real” journalist. But this does make me think.

    1) It is also possible that “imagination & spontaneity” provide more than “warmth and caring.” Human input can add the moral component to treatment choices such as risk taking when the odds are against survival as with an experimental treatment or a diagnosis of “fatal & inoperable.”

    2) Computer programs and decision trees can only process information which has been inputted because it is previously known. Human creativity allows for discoveries such as a previously unidentified presentation of symptoms, “new” diagnoses, or some completely new approach to treatment for a known condition.

    Of course, human providers should learn to use whatever tools are useful to improve care & outcomes & decrease waste. But tools are meant to be used by thinking men & women, not to dictate to them.

  • 3. Rob  |  January 31, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Perhaps if you changed your name to something cooler, like “Kenzai Bottuwandae” you’d gain cred. I agree with you that there needs to be structure that allows creativity. Even non-procedural physicians like me use a structured approach to history taking and physical exam. I think it is essential to do so. That’s not much difference.

    The best physicians are probably the ones who are naturally drawn to structure where it is appropriate.

  • […]  He might bottle things, but that is not relevant.  Dr. B talks about how some smarty-pants surgeon is telling everyone to use checklists all the time. Dr. B thinks that this guy may be right, but there needs to be room for imagination and deviating […]

  • 5. kent bottles  |  February 6, 2010 at 11:20 am This is a really good Salon interview with Atul Gawande that addresses many of the issues we talked about in this blog post

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