The other shoe drops. A year ago Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about the Apgar score, a low-tech measurement of newborn viability that led to vast improvements in obstetrics. That’s the “how to improve?” side of things. Now Gawande has written about something equally simple and powerful on the “here’s how to improve” side of medicine: the use of checklists to improve ICU treatment. The first article was called “The Score”; this one is called “The Checklist”.

Checklists are the idea of Peter Pronovost, an ICU doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His first checklist, in 2001, was designed to prevent infections on tubes inserted into patients. Nurses made sure that doctors followed the checklist. It’s like the Ten Commandments: the top and bottom getting together to improve the behavior of people in the middle. Checklists involved the empowerment of nurses (bottom) by hospital administrators (top) to improve the performance of doctors (middle). The Apgar score also involved female empowerment: Virginia Apgar was one of the first powerful women in medicine.

Pronovost told Gawande:

The tasks of medical science fall into three buckets. One is understanding disease biology. One is finding effective therapies. And one is insuring those therapies are delivered effectively. That third bucket has been almost totally ignored by research funders, government, and academia. It’s viewed as the art of medicine. That’s a mistake, a huge mistake. And from a taxpayer’s perspective it’s outrageous.

Not to mention a sick person’s perspective. I completely agree. Several years ago I heard an industrial designer give a talk to an interface design group. He said that new high-tech products go through three stages: (a) used only by gadgeteers and professional engineers (e.g., the first home computers); (b) used by experts (e.g., billing software for lawyers); and (c) mass market (e.g., cell phones). The discipline of engineering, he said, was good at designing for the first two stages but not the third.

The similarities suggest a common explanation. I think one reason goes back to Veblen: It is low status to do useful work. It may also have to do with male dominance of medical research and engineering. When balancing status versus usefulness, men may weigh status more highly.

More innovation in the delivery of medicine: house calls. No kidding. More about Peter Pronovost.