fb-pixel Skip to main content

Same message, different tone on health care costs

At separate events this week, Dr. Atul Gawandecq and Jack Connorscq, two of the most powerful people in Boston’s medical community, each spoke about the intersection of health care quality and the nation’s health cost crisis.

While their central message was similar -- both said solutions will come from within the medical community, not from politicians -- the two struck notably different tones.

At a breakfast event this morning hosted by the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care, Connors, businessman and outgoing chairman of the Partners HealthCare System, said he takes a decidedly glass-half-full view of the challenges ahead.

“We have a gun to our heads, in health care,” he said. “And we’re responding, I think, very well.”


Boston may be the world’s center of innovation in life sciences and medicine, Connors said, and the people here will find the answers to questions about how to continue to deliver great health care.

“We’re prepared for the future,” he said. “I would argue that, even though change is coming at us faster than at any point in history, this is what we’re trained for . . . We’re alright. We’ll figure this out.”

Gawande’s keynote speech before the annual dinner for the Lucien Leape Institutecq, part of the National Patient Safety Foundationcq, offered similar assurance that the medical community had the power to change. But the writer and Brigham and Women’s Hospital surgeon painted the situation as a dire one.

If the health care system does not change dramatically within the next decade, the American way of life will be in jeopardy, he said.

Providing better care -- through such things as collaboration among health providers and coaching for physicians -- could translate to “helping to save an entire economy of a country,” he said. “It’s a great burden.”

He told the audience of hospital administrators, nurses, doctors, medical device and technology leaders, and patient safety specialists this story:


My son was having trouble in school. He was doing fine but he had drifted down in his grades, and it just wasn’t getting noticed. He was in a class of 30 students to one teacher in the Newton public schools which is a well-funded district. And I went to the parent teacher conference with my wife to try to understand what we might be able to do to help with the situation.

I ran into the new school superintendent, who had been hired to be a school reformer and help make the quality of our schools better. And I said to him, “What are you doing to work on this problem? We have 30 students in my son’s classroom. What are you working on these days?”

And he said, “You know what I’m working on? You know what I spend more time on than anything else? Health care costs.”

He said, “Our tax revenues have been flat. The school enrollment is up, and this year’s teacher health care premiums went up 9 percent.”

I said, “Oh.” And I went off to the parent-teacher conference. (laughter)

And on the way, I ran into a teacher that I had operated on. She’d had a lymphoma, and we’d been able to save her. But I realized she was one of that small percentage that accounted for more than half of their health care costs. And that’s when I realized, I had doomed my son’s education.


Now, I do not believe that the choices are between whether my son gets a great education or his teacher gets great care for her lymphoma. I believe that it’s possible to have great care for her lymphoma and a great education for him.

There’s nobody in Washington, that can calculate and devise a way to make that possible. Only people in health care can do that. Only the people here.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.