A medical student meets Donald Berwick

While attending the Institute for Healthcare Improvement Annual Forum recently, my friend, Jared Conley, and I had the good fortune of finding ourselves standing a table away from Don Berwick in a relatively empty conference room. As MD/PhD in Health Policy students, we were interested in asking him a question about ACOs, so we approached him and introduced ourselves, hastily adding, “We know you’re busy, so we just have a quick question for you.”

“I’m not busy,” he calmly replied, and proceeded to ask us about ourselves.

He then listened to our question and gave an insightful and thorough reply, which led to a few additional minutes of conversation. We thanked him and left somewhat awestruck that we had just spent five minutes of uninterrupted time with one of the most influential leaders in healthcare.

A few hours later, I was walking by myself down a large but relatively empty hallway and passed a man looking at his smartphone as he walked. When I looked back, it was, again, Dr. Berwick.

“Dr. Berwick, this is twice in one day!”

“Oh, hi Taylor!” He remembered my name.

As he sped up to walk beside me, we discussed some additional thoughts I had about his response to our previous question. I then asked, “I feel like I’m starting to get things pieced together with what needs to happen with healthcare, and I really want to translate that to an impact in healthcare, so how can I have the greatest influence for change?”

“A couple things come to mind. First, don’t do it alone.” He then explained the importance of the group of friends he has collaborated with, and how they have all worked together to make change.

“Yeah,” I responded, “and then I guess one rises above the rest or is kind of chosen to lead and that’s why you are the one getting the attention.”

“No no, it’s all done together. The public invents that myth.”

“And the second thing is you have to do what you are expecting others to do. After you finish a care experience, you should ask the nurse, ‘How could I have made your job easier?’ And at the end of an appointment with a patient, you could ask, ‘How do you think I can be a better doctor?’ Even after you’ve been practicing for 20 years, you should still be asking that question.” I thanked him for his kindness and we parted ways.

I am sure Don Berwick’s concluding keynote speech given shortly thereafter has already been listened to and read by thousands, but that day his personal interactions also impacted healthcare by teaching a future doctor, in word and deed, exactly how I need to treat my patients and colleagues so I too can improve healthcare.

Taylor J. Christensen is a medical student who blogs at Clear Thinking on Health Care.

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