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Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance Hardcover – April 3, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 343 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Surgeon and MacArthur fellow Gawande applies his gift for dulcet prose to medical and ethical dilemmas in this collection of 12 original and previously published essays adapted from the New England Journal of Medicine and the New Yorker. If his 2002 collection, Complications, addressed the unfathomable intractability of the body, this is largely about how we erect barriers to seamless and thorough care. Doctors know they should wash their hands more often to avoid bacterial transfer in the ward, but once a minute does seem extreme. Using chaperones for breast exams seems a fine idea, but it does make situations awkward. "The social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific," Gawande writes—a conclusion that could serve as a thumbnail summary of his entire output. The heart of the book are the chapters "What Doctors Owe," about the U.S.'s blinkered malpractice system, and "Piecework," about what doctors earn. Cheerier, paradoxically, are the chapters involving polio and cystic fibrosis, featuring Dr. Pankaj Bhatnagar and Dr. Warren Warwick, two remarkable men who have been able to catapult their humanity into their work rather than constantly stumble over it. Indeed, one suspects that once we cure the ills of the health care system, we'll look back and see that Gawande's writings were part of the story. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

A surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Atul Gawande succeeds in putting a human face on controversial topics like malpractice and global disparities in medical care, while taking an unflinching look at his own failings as a doctor. Critics appreciated his candor, his sly sense of humor, and his skill in examining difficult issues from many perspectives. He conveys his message—that doctors are only human and therefore must always be diligent and resourceful in fulfilling their duties—in clear, confident prose. Most critics' only complaint was that half of the essays are reprints of earlier articles. Gawande's arguments, by turns inspiring and unsettling, may cause you to see your own doctor in a whole new light.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (April 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805082115
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805082111
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (343 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #162,908 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen R. Laniel on April 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
First, as a quick proxy of how good it is, and as a way of enticing busy readers, I should note that I finished Atal Gawande's book Better: A Surgeon's Notes On Performance in less than four hours. I can't remember the last time that happened. True, it's a relatively short book, and I had some uninterrupted time on a bus. But mostly it's that Gawande is a straightforward, energetic, thoughtful writer whose essays relentlessly pull you forward. Each discusses one or two ideas in enough depth to make you realize that they're not easy problems -- which is all most people need, and which does a world of good on its own. Every country has its unquestioned assumptions; it's the rare writer who helps us question them and gently remind us that if there were easy solutions, we'd have found them by now. Gawande is good at that.

The most moving and thought-provoking of these essays, to me, was "The Doctors of the Death Chamber," in which Gawande interviews four doctors (whom he labels "A," "B," "C" and -- wait for it -- "D," in order to secure their anonymity) who help states carry out the death penalty humanely. The use of "humanely" here is questionable; it's humane in the sense that, if we are to use the death penalty, we must not be needlessly cruel at the time of the criminal's death. But it's inhumane in the larger sense that we are furthering a corrupt system -- we are "tinker[ing] with the machinery of death," to use Justice Blackmun's words. Since a doctor's role is to protect human lives, are anaesthesiologists who help execute people painlessly violating their roles? To put it more succinctly: should a doctor make the best of the machinery of death, or should he take no part in the machine? The American Medical Association has its answer and its role.
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Format: Hardcover
Atul Gawande is a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and -- from everything I've heard and read about him recently -- one of the best of the new breed of medical writers who devote their prose to informing the general public about important concerns in the world of medicine. If this new book, "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance," is a representative example of his usual writing talent, I will completely agree with the above assessment. This collection of original and previously published essays is highly readable and very interesting. Normally, I am not all that interested in reading about medical topics unless it impacts me personally. I'm not a great fan of hospitals nor am I enthusiastic about going to a physician. Fortunately, for most of my life I have enjoyed relatively excellent health. My attitude, however, changed five years ago and Gawande's book takes on some genuine relevance for me. How so and why?

In a section of his book, entitled "The Mop-Up," Gawande discusses polio and the campaign to wipe it out in Asia wherein he was a momentary observer in the field in 2003. Way back in ancient history, when I was a mere child in the 1940s and America was hit with a polio epidemic, I was diagnosed with polio and almost died. Hence the relevance here for me. But more than that, I am convinced to this day that I was "saved" because of the efforts of a nurse -- I'm sure she was one of Gawande's "positive deviants" which he describes in his book -- who insisted on treating me and others with a controversial treatment (opposed by most of the medical "establishment" at the time) called "The Sister Kenny Method." She never lost a patient, by the way; we all recovered without any significant aftereffects that I know of.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm always on the side of self-education when it comes to medical topics, especially in light of the current health care system and its looming problems. Gawande's skill is in writing movingly ab out all sorts of medical issues, including both failures and successes, in a way that illuminates the complexities of practicing medicine in today's world of HMOs, soaring premiums and more.

Some of his essays may appeal more to you than others but I urge you to read the entire book, as well as to get his other one, Complications. I've read medical memoirs that put me to sleep and have been baffled by how someone could take life and death situations and turn them into dry writing. This isn't the case here and you'll come away from the book with a stronger understanding of all the factors (and possible solutions) that make up the world of medicine, medical ethics and patient care today.
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Format: Hardcover
This book will be a great read for you if you're interested in the practice of medicine and how it could be done better. You'll love it if you simply enjoy lucid writing about the practice of medicine.

But this book also offers you great lessons if you want to understand how science and performance management come together as they should in business or any other field of endeavor. That's because the author sets out to answer a question that is as important for people in business as it is for people in medicine.

What does it take to be good at something when it is so easy not to be?

Gawande ways that most people, especially physicians, think that success in medicine comes from canny diagnosis, technical prowess and the ability to empathize. They think that progress in medicine comes from scientific breakthroughs and sophisticated equipment and procedures.

The reality, though, is quote different. Improved performance, according to Gawande, comes from

Doing Right

Again and again Gawande demonstrates how concentrating on patients and on performance leads to improvement for both individuals and for medical practice in general. He does this with a mix of historical examples, patient stories, statistics and stories from his own life and practice.

He divides the book into three sections corresponding to his three necessities for improvement.

In the section on Diligence the chapters are on washing hands, dealing with polio in India, and dealing with casualties from the Iraq war. The chapter on military medicine and the concentration on process improvement is worth the price of the book if you're in business.
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