Atul Gawande, MD, MPH is a surgeon, writer, and researcher who provides genuine insights into the challenging complexities of medicine. But, he also creates novel solutions like check lists in operating rooms. Dr. Gawande connects reflection on personal experience, processes from other fields, and scientific research into insightful narratives that outline the rationale and concrete action needed for improvement. He contends problems in healthcare are not necessarily conceptual, but rather stem from poor processes. There is a lack of knowledge translation and application. In his book Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance, he explores the science of performance and specific high performing individuals.  At the end, he outlines general advice for improvement. Atul Gawande’s suggestions for becoming a positive deviant:

1. Ask an unscripted question

Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them? On the surface, this seems easy enough. Then your new patient arrives. You still have three others to see…But consider, at an appropriate point, taking a moment with your patient. Make yourself ask an unscripted question. So ask a random question of the medical assistant…a nurse you into on rounds…you start to remember the people you see, instead of letting them all blur together. And sometimes you discover the unexpected. If you ask a question, the machine begins to feel less like a machine.

2. Don’t complain

We all know what it feels like to be tired and beaten down. Yet nothing in medicine is more dispiriting than hearing doctors complain. Medicine is a trying profession, but less because of the difficulties of disease than because of the difficulties of having to work with other human beings under circumstances only partly in one’s control…You don’t have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem…

3. Count something

Regardless of what one ultimately does in medicine–or outside medicine, for that matter–one should be a scientist in this world. In the simplest terms, this means on should count something.

4. Write something

It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world. You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest.

5. Change

Look for the opportunity to change. I am not saying you should embrace every new trend that comes along. But be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure

Simple, applicable, and needed suggestions.

To be sure, we need innovations to expand our knowledge and therapies, whether for CF [Cystic Fibrosis] or childhood lymphoma or heart disease or any of the other countless way sin which the human body fails. but we have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us. And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that. When we’ve made a science of performance, however–as we’ve seen with hand washing, wounded soldiers, child delivery–thousands of lives have been saved. Indeed, the scientific effort to improve performance in medicine–an effort that at present gets only a miniscule portion of scientific budgets–can arguably save more lives in the next decade than bench science, more lives than research on the genome, stem cell therapy, cancer vaccines, and all the other laboratory work we hear about in the news. The stakes could not be higher.

More specifically to physical therapy within the realm of healthcare, two of the most profound, if not obvious, examples are the “treatment” of musculoskeletal conditions (pain) and the mobilization of hospitalized adults. The knowledge is present to dramatically improve both. Societally, there is dire need for more movement, whether activity or exercise, in healthy individuals as well as older adults, those with chronic medical conditions, and cardiac & pulmonary disease. Again, the knowledge is there. But, are the processes and incentives for performance available? How can physical therapy as a profession and each of us as individuals move forward to enact meaningful change? Atul comments:

True success in medicine is not easy. It requires will, attention to detail, and creativity. But the lesson I took from India was that it is possible anywhere and by anyone. I can imagine few places with more difficult conditions. Yet astonishing successes could be found. And each one began, I noticed, remarkably simply: with a readiness to recognize problems and a determination to remedy them.

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

Ask questions. Sideline complaints without solutions. Count things. Write. Change.