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What Jamie Dimon Saw in Atul Gawande: “A Big Brain and A Big Heart”

Word that surgeon and scribe Atul Gawande had been named the new CEO of the mystery health venture launched by JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway was met with what seemed to be a thunderclap of applause on the Interwebs—and, yes, by me too. Gawande, who is retaining most of his other ho-hum day jobs—general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, feature writer for The New Yorker, Harvard professor, and think tank thinker—will start shaping this “independent,” Boston-based, not-explicitly-for-profit, corporate health venture in two and a half weeks. Which means we’ll probably have to wait another two and a half weeks (and then some) before we get the first clues as to what the new boss has in mind.

But Brainstorm Health readers, happily, don’t have to wait to get some inside skinny on why Gawande got the job—and what his initial marching orders are. What’s more, you can hear such news directly from one of the gents who hired him: JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

Here’s what Dimon had to say about Gawande yesterday afternoon, when I inelegantly barged into an interview my colleagues were conducting with the influential Fortune 500 CEO on another important topic:

“We interviewed quite a few people. [Berkshire Hathaway investment manager] Todd Combs [who also sits on the board of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and who has been helping to lead the effort] did most of that. But I did some. Warren [Buffett] did some. And Gawande was kind of always at the forefront. We wanted to make sure we thought about everybody, and thought about the issues. And if you know Atul, you know he’s got a big brain and a big heart. He has a huge work ethic. He’s trustworthy. And obviously no one’s going to have [all the background you might] want for a position like that. But, basically, all we want to do is get going—get him involved in the process. Let him hire a team. Let the team start looking at what we all do, and then we want them to be creative in what they pluck out. We have a million ideas—and we’ve got ideas from all around the world. And we’re going to share some of that with him. But then we’re going to say, ‘Look, after all of this, figure out how you want to go about tackling this problem.’ Start with something that’s workable. And Jeff [Bezos] always gives the advice: Take out a piece, and just crack that one piece. And then crack another piece, and not try to boil the ocean all at once. And then, also, there may be a lot of things we simply test. So we’ve got a real long-term view. I think one of the competitive things here is that we hope to be doing this a long time. We’re not looking for immediate success. We think that would be a mistake. And Atul has done some of this on his own, by the way. He’s already fairly knowledgeable about some of the flaws in the health care system—and potential fixes.”

(Yes, that came out in one blisteringly quick, single-breath cascade.)

As Dimon says, Gawande’s knowledge about the flaws in, and potential fixes for, the health care system, runs deep. And all of it, importantly, derives from real-world experience, not a textbook.

At Ariadne Labs, the innovation center he cofounded in 2012 (which is jointly operated by the Brigham and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), Gawande and his colleagues pioneered several hospital safety protocols that are now used around the world and which are credited with preventing an untold number of deaths. Some of these straightforward guidelines—which Gawande dubs “checklists”—are designed to systematically reduce, for instance, avoidable errors before, during, and after surgery. (Roughly half of all surgical complications are thought to be preventable, according to various studies.)

Another Ariadne checklist helps care givers eliminate much of the needless risk in childbirth. (Though rates of maternal mortality have dropped sharply over the past two decades, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 830 women still die every day from preventable causes during pregnancy or childbirth.)

“We said at the outset that the degree of difficulty is high and success is going to require an expert’s knowledge, a beginner’s mind, and a long-term orientation,” declared Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in the press statement announcing Gawande’s hire.

“Atul,” he said, “embodies all three.”

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