Who is Donald Berwick?

Obama to nominate Berwick to head CMS

By the Associated Press
March 28, 2010

An administration official says President Barack Obama will nominate healthcare scholar Donald Berwick to be CMS administrator.

Berwick, a pediatrician and noted health policy expert, is president and CEO of the not-for-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass.

Berwick is also a professor of pediatrics and healthcare policy at the Harvard Medical School and a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health.

An elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, Berwick served as a member of the IOM's Committee on Quality of Health Care in America, which launched the slowly building revolution in healthcare quality improvement. The committee published in November 1999 To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, which gave the healthcare industry one of its most totemic phrases: "At least 44,000, and perhaps as many as 98,000 Americans, die in hospitals each year as the result of medical errors."


Donald Berwick speaks up

Quote of the Day
November 18, 2005

'A Deficiency Of Will And Ambition': A Conversation With Donald Berwick

By Robert Galvin
Health Affairs
January 12, 2005

Donald Berwick is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in Boston, Massachusetts. Bob Galvin is director, Global Health Care, at the General Electric Company in Fairfield, Connecticut.


Galvin: I'm interested in your thoughts on the impact of the Leapfrog Group, an effort organized by the purchasers of health care, both private-sector employers and public purchasers. The Leapfrog agenda has focused on... benefit incentives that engage consumers and patients in the quality and cost of care...

Berwick: The one part of the (Leapfrog) plan that I am absolutely against at the moment is the shifting of burden to individual patients. I do not believe that making the individual American patient more "cost-sensitive" has any rationale in science, ethics, or evidence. It will fail, and it will fail miserably. It will result in a shifting of care away from the people who need it the most. It is a displacement of responsibility for changing the system. You know, if CalPERS or Xerox or GE can't change care through using its purchasing power, then I absolutely promise you that Mrs. Jones can't. The idea that she will now be more sensitive because she pays an extra ten bucks out of pocket is, to me, nearly stupid. So I really disagree with that element of the agenda.

Internationally, when one looks at high-performing systems around the world - and ours is nowhere near the highest-performing one - it is almost a routine characteristic of the best systems that they have first-dollar coverage, and there is no attempt to make patients pay more when they're sick, which is a stupid thing to do.


Galvin: The conceptual basis of this is - as unsettling as it may be to "dangle money" to increase motivation-grounded in personality and motivation theory. In private industry, we would simply call it understanding what makes people tick. People respond to incentives. So part of the pay-for-performance movement is based on this idea that clinicians are really no different than other people and that they'll respond to incentives.

Berwick: At the individual level, I don't trust incentives at all. I do not think it's true that the way to get better doctoring and better nursing is to put money on the table in front of doctors and nurses. I think that's a fundamental misunderstanding of human motivation. I think people respond to joy and work and love and achievement and learning and appreciation and gratitude-and a sense of a job well done. I think that it feels good to be a good doctor and better to be a better doctor. When we begin to attach dollar amounts to throughputs and to individual pay, we are playing with fire. The first and most important effect of that may be to begin to dissociate people from their work. That's really where we've come to, and we've done it by pay-for-performance in terms of throughput measurements and manipulating payment schemes.


Galvin: Let me move to another issue, and that is the explosion that's about to play out in biomedical innovation. If you talk to patients... they are also interested in innovations that can cure them or their loved ones. They speak about it with pride and passion...

Berwick: I do think this: We have a learning disability in this country with respect to the difference between technologies that really do help and technologies that are only adding money to the margins of the companies that make them, without essentially paying their way in value. One of the drivers of low value in health care today is the continuous entrance of new technologies, devices, and drugs that add no value to care. If we had strong national policy, it would allow us to know the difference, and I would more fully support what I think you're correctly proposing, which is an innovations value. We need to help the public know the difference. There's a big agenda here, possibly for government, to help create a public awareness that more is not necessarily better. Frequently it's worse. So we can be smart about what we buy and what we choose not to buy.


Galvin: Many of us on the purchaser side see radically improving the efficiency of the system as a way to free up capital to cover the uninsured and to fund innovation. How do you think efficiency fits into the quality agenda?

Berwick: Let's define efficiency as making sure that every dollar you spend gets a dollar of value back, so that efficiency is the opposite of waste. Right from the start, it has been one of the great illusions in the reign of quality that quality and cost go in opposite directions. There remains very little evidence of that. There may be some innovations that raise cost while raising quality, but many, many improvements reduce costs.

What puzzles me is how to access efficiency as a social agenda in health care. There are couple of problems. The first is that a lot of people make a lot of money on inefficiency - on production of things that have no value. So the minute you try to become truly efficient, you're going to run into stakeholders who are going to tell you that you're harming care, and the knee-jerk reactions of doctors and others will be to reinforce that idea. And they include you. I mean, GE pays out of one pocket and then makes money on products and services that do not add real value.


Galvin: There's a threshold issue with most purchasers when you talk about getting a patient financially engaged. That is that no one ends up paying more because they're sick. The only option would be to pay less. Let me give you an example: Many employer-sponsored benefit plans across the country have hospital copays as part of their cost sharing. This means that there is a fee of a hundred or several hundred dollars when one is admitted to a hospital. In these benefit designs, while most people have pretty free choice of what hospital they go to, going to the one that objective data demonstrate is of superior quality and efficiency would result in a waiver of the copay.

Berwick: Well, I can be an empiricist about it. Go ahead and try it. I shudder to think about what may happen, because in the end, that sick patient arriving at that hospital is in the absolutely weakest position at that particular point to decide, "Aha, I'm going to save a hundred dollars and go elsewhere." That person is more likely to be poor, more likely to be black, more likely to be a low-wage earner. I think it's regressive social policy, and I predict that it won't work. It's a displacement of responsibility from the stewards who actually have the job of crafting systems to meet the needs of the people who come to them for help. I think it's a bad, bad policy, and I don't see it playing out productively in other countries, either.

Full interview:


Checking in with Donald Berwick, President and CEO, Institute for Healthcare Improvement

Kaiser Health News
November 12, 2009

An interview of Donald Berwick (video 8:39)


Video Segments of Dr. Donald Berwick from the Documentary "Money Driven Medicine"

Health Beat by Maggie Mahar
The Century Foundation
March 26, 2010

Nine video clips (total 9:38)


By Don McCanne, MD

Soon everyone will know what Donald Berwick is - a Harvard professor and head of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, about to become the administrator of CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), assuming that he survives the acrimonious vetting process in our highly politicized Congress.

More importantly than what, today's message tries to show who he is by repeating a prior Quote of the Day extracted from an interview of him published in Health Affairs five years ago. Also included are links to more recent video interviews of him (total less than 20 minutes).