Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

download Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

of 23


By Atul Gawande. Published in the Annals of Medicine, July 29, 2013 Issue.

Transcript of Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

  • Annals of Medicine JULY 29, 2013 ISSUE

    Slow IdeasSome innovations spread fast. How do you speed the ones that dont?BY ATUL GAWANDE


    Save paper and follow @newyorker on Twitter

    We yearn for frictionless, technologicalsolutions. But people talking to people is stillthe way that norms and standards change.ILLUSTRATION BY HARRY CAMPBELL

    Why do someinnovationsspread so swiftlyand others so slowly?Consider the very differenttrajectories of surgicalanesthesia and antiseptics,both of which werediscovered in the nineteenthcentury. The first publicdemonstration of anesthesiawas in 1846. The Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow wasapproached by a local dentist named William Morton, whoinsisted that he had found a gas that could render patientsinsensible to the pain of surgery. That was a dramatic claim.In those days, even a minor tooth extraction was excruciating.Without effective pain control, surgeons learned to work withslashing speed. Attendants pinned patients down as theyscreamed and thrashed, until they fainted from the agony.Nothing ever tried had made much difference. Nonetheless,Bigelow agreed to let Morton demonstrate his claim.

    On October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital,

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    1 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Morton administered his gas through an inhaler in the mouthof a young man undergoing the excision of a tumor in his jaw.The patient only muttered to himself in a semi-consciousstate during the procedure. The following day, the gas left awoman, undergoing surgery to cut a large tumor from herupper arm, completely silent and motionless. When she woke,she said she had experienced nothing at all.

    Four weeks later, on November 18th, Bigelow published hisreport on the discovery of insensibility produced byinhalation in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. Mortonwould not divulge the composition of the gas, which he calledLetheon, because he had applied for a patent. But Bigelowreported that he smelled ether in it (ether was used as aningredient in certain medical preparations), and that seems tohave been enough. The idea spread like a contagion, travellingthrough letters, meetings, and periodicals. By mid-December,surgeons were administering ether to patients in Paris andLondon. By February, anesthesia had been used in almost allthe capitals of Europe, and by June in most regions of theworld.

    There were forces of resistance, to be sure. Some peoplecriticized anesthesia as a needless luxury; clergymendeplored its use to reduce pain during childbirth as afrustration of the Almightys designs. James Miller, anineteenth-century Scottish surgeon who chronicled theadvent of anesthesia, observed the opposition of elderlysurgeons: They closed their ears, shut their eyes, and foldedtheir hands. . . . They had quite made up their minds thatpain was a necessary evil, and must be endured. Yet sooneven the obstructors, with a run, mounted behindhurrahing and shouting with the best. Within seven years,virtually every hospital in America and Britain had adoptedthe new discovery.

    Sepsisinfectionwas the other great scourge of surgery. Itwas the single biggest killer of surgical patients, claiming asmany as half of those who underwent major operations, such

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    2 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • as a repair of an open fracture or the amputation of a limb.Infection was so prevalent that suppurationthe discharge ofpus from a surgical woundwas thought to be a necessarypart of healing.

    In the eighteen-sixties, the Edinburgh surgeon Joseph Listerread a paper by Louis Pasteur laying out his evidence thatspoiling and fermentation were the consequence ofmicroorganisms. Lister became convinced that the sameprocess accounted for wound sepsis. Pasteur had observedthat, besides filtration and the application of heat, exposure tocertain chemicals could eliminate germs. Lister had readabout the city of Carlisles success in using a small amount ofcarbolic acid to eliminate the odor of sewage, and reasonedthat it was destroying germs. Maybe it could do the same insurgery.

    During the next few years, he perfected ways to use carbolicacid for cleansing hands and wounds and destroying anygerms that might enter the operating field. The result wasstrikingly lower rates of sepsis and death. You would havethought that, when he published his observations in agroundbreaking series of reports in The Lancet, in 1867, hisantiseptic method would have spread as rapidly as anesthesia.

    Far from it. The surgeon J. M. T. Finney recalled that, whenhe was a trainee at Massachusetts General Hospital twodecades later, hand washing was still perfunctory. Surgeonssoaked their instruments in carbolic acid, but they continuedto operate in black frock coats stiffened with the blood andviscera of previous operationsthe badge of a busy practice.Instead of using fresh gauze as sponges, they reused seasponges without sterilizing them. It was a generation beforeListers recommendations became routine and the next stepswere taken toward the modern standard of asepsisthat is,entirely excluding germs from the surgical field, usingheat-sterilized instruments and surgical teams clad in sterilegowns and gloves.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    3 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Is there a section at thebottom for comments?


    In our era of electronic communications, weve come to expectthat important innovations will spread quickly. Plenty do:think of in-vitro fertilization, genomics, and communicationstechnologies themselves. But theres an equally long list ofvital innovations that have failed to catch on. The puzzle iswhy.

    id the spread ofanesthesia andantisepsis differ for

    economic reasons? Actually,the incentives for both ran inthe right direction. If painless

    surgery attracted paying patients, so would a noticeably lowerdeath rate. Besides, live patients were more likely to makegood on their surgery bill. Maybe ideas that violate priorbeliefs are harder to embrace. To nineteenth-centurysurgeons, germ theory seemed as illogical as, say, Darwinstheory that human beings evolved from primates. Then again,so did the idea that you could inhale a gas and enter apain-free state of suspended animation. Proponents ofanesthesia overcame belief by encouraging surgeons to tryether on a patient and witness the results for themselvestotake a test drive. When Lister tried this strategy, however, hemade little progress.

    The technical complexity might have been part of thedifficulty. Giving Listers methods a try required painstakingattention to detail. Surgeons had to be scrupulous aboutsoaking their hands, their instruments, and even their catgutsutures in antiseptic solution. Lister also set up a device thatcontinuously sprayed a mist of antiseptic over the surgicalfield.

    But anesthesia was no easier. Obtaining ether andconstructing the inhaler could be difficult. You had to makesure that the device delivered an adequate dosage, and themechanism required constant tinkering. Yet most surgeonsstuck with itor else they switched to chloroform, which was

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    4 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Tfound to be an even more powerful anesthetic, but posed itsown problems. (An imprecise dosage killed people.) Facedwith the complexities, they didnt give up; instead, theyformed an entire new medical specialtyanesthesiology.

    So what were the key differences? First, one combatted avisible and immediate problem (pain); the other combatted aninvisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldnt be manifestuntil well after the operation. Second, although both madelife better for patients, only one made life better for doctors.Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressuredassault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure.Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work in ashower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned thesurgeons hands. You can imagine why Listers crusade mighthave been a tough sell.

    his has been the pattern of many important but stalledideas. They attack problems that are big but, to mostpeople, invisible; and making them work can be

    tedious, if not outright painful. The global destructionwrought by a warming climate, the health damage from ourover-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster ofour trillion dollars in unpaid student debtthese thingsworsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the carbolic-acidremedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kindor another, struggle to get anywhere.

    The global problem of death in childbirth is a pressingexample. Every year, three hundred thousand mothers andmore than six million children die around the time of birth,largely in poorer countries. Most of these deaths are due toevents that occur during or shortly after delivery. A mothermay hemorrhage. She or her baby may suffer an infection.Many babies cant take their first breath without assistance,and newborns, especially those born small, have troubleregulating their body temperature after birth. Simple,lifesaving solutions have been known for decades. They justhavent spread.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    5 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Many solutions arent ones you can try at home, and thatspart of the problem. Increasingly, however, women around theworld are giving birth in hospitals. In India, a governmentprogram offers mothers up to fourteen hundred rupeesmorethan what most Indians live on for a monthwhen theydeliver in a hospital, and now, in many areas, the majority ofbirths are in facilities. Death rates in India have fallen, buttheyre still ten times greater than in high-income countrieslike our own.

    Not long ago, I visited a few community hospitals in northIndia, where just one-third of mothers received themedication recommended to prevent hemorrhage; less thanten per cent of the newborns were given adequate warming;and only four per cent of birth attendants washed their handsfor vaginal examination and delivery. In an average childbirth,clinicians followed only about ten of twenty-nine basicrecommended practices.

    Here we are in the first part of the twenty-first century, andwere still trying to figure out how to get ideas from the firstpart of the twentieth century to take root. In the hopes ofspreading safer childbirth practices, several colleagues and Ihave teamed up with the Indian government, the WorldHealth Organization, the Gates Foundation, and PopulationServices International to create something called theBetterBirth Project. Were working in Uttar Pradesh, which isamong Indias poorest states. One afternoon in January, ourteam travelled a couple of hours from the states capital,Lucknow, with its bleating cars and ramshackle shops, to arural hospital surrounded by lush farmland and thatched-hutvillages. Although the sun was high and the sky was clear, thetemperature was near freezing. The hospital was a one-storyconcrete building painted goldenrod yellow. (Our researchagreement required that I keep it unnamed.) The entrance ison a dirt road lined with rows of motorbikes, the primarymeans of long-distance transportation. If an ambulance or anauto-rickshaw cant be found, women in labor sit sidesaddleon the back of a bike.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    6 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Oh, not much. Just sittinghere sifting through an oldscrapbook of past injustices

    and imagined slights.BUY THE PRINT

    The hospital delivers threethousand newborns a year, atypical volume in India butone that would put it in thetop fifth of Americanhospitals. Yet it had little ofthe amenities that youdassociate with a modernhospital. I met the physicianin charge, a smart andcapable internist in his earlythirties who had trained in

    the capital. He was clean-shaven and buzz-cut, with anArgyle sweater, track shoes, and a habitual half smile. He toldme, apologetically, that the hospital staff had no ability to doblood tests, to give blood transfusions, or to performemergency obstetrics procedures such as Cesarean sections.There was no electricity during the day. There was certainlyno heating, even though the temperature was barely fortydegrees that day, and no air-conditioning, even thoughsummer temperatures routinely reach a hundred degrees.There were two blood-pressure cuffs for the entire facility.The nurses office in my neighborhood elementary school wasbetter equipped.

    The hospital was severely understaffed, too. The doctor saidthat half of the staff positions were vacant. To help with childdeliveries for a local population of a quarter of a millionpeople, the hospital had two nurses and one obstetrician, whohappened to be his wife. The nurses, who had six months ofchildbirth training, did most of the deliveries, swapping shiftsyear-round. The obstetrician covered the outpatient clinic,and helped with complicated births whenever she wasrequired, day or night. During holidays or sickness, the twonurses covered for each other, but, if no one was available,laboring women were either sent to another hospital, milesaway, or an untrained assistant might be forced to step in.

    It may be surprising that mothers are better off delivering in

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    7 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • such places than at home in a village, but studies show aconsistently higher survival rate when they do. The staffmembers I met in India had impressive experience. Even theyoungest nurses had done more than a thousand childdeliveries. Theyve seen and learned to deal with countlessproblemsa torn placenta, an umbilical cord wrapped arounda babys neck, a stuck shoulder. Seeing the daily heroismrequired to keep such places going, you feel foolish andill-mannered asking how they could do things better.

    But then we hung out in the wards for a while. In the deliveryroom, a boy had just been born. He and his mother were lyingon a cot, bundled under woollen blankets, resting. The roomwas coffin-cold; I was having trouble feeling my toes. I triedto imagine what that baby must have felt like. Newborns havea high body-surface area and lose heat rapidly. Even in warmweather, hypothermia is common, and it makes newbornsweak and less responsive, less able to breast-feed adequatelyand more prone to infection. I noticed that the boy wasswaddled separately from his mother. Voluminous evidenceshows that it is far better to place the child on the motherschest or belly, skin to skin, so that the mothers body canregulate the babys until it is ready to take over. Among smallor premature babies, kangaroo care (as it is known) cutsmortality rates by a third.

    So why hadnt the nurse swaddled the two together? She was askilled and self-assured woman in her mid-thirties withtwinkly eyes, a brown knit hat, and a wool sweater over hershalwar kameez. Resources clearly werent the issuekangaroo care costs nothing. Had she heard of it? Oh, yes, shesaid. Shed taken a skilled-birth-attendant class that taught it.Had she forgotten about it? No. She had actually offered toput the baby skin to skin with the mother, and showed mewhere shed noted this in the record.

    The mother didnt want it, she explained. She said she wastoo cold.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    8 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Shes so Jersey.BUY THE PRINT

    The nurse seemed to think it was strange that I was makingsuch an issue of this. The baby was fine, wasnt he? And hewas. He was sleeping sweetly, a tightly wrapped peanut with ascrunched brown face and his mouth in a lowercase o.

    But had his temperature been taken? It had not. The nursesaid that she had been planning to do so. Our visit haddisrupted her routine. Suppose she had, though, and histemperature was low. Would she have done anythingdifferently? Would she have made the mom unswaddle thechild and put him to her chest?

    Everything about the life the nurse leadsthe hours she putsin, the circumstances she endures, the satisfaction she takes inher abilitiesshows that she cares. But hypothermia, like thegerms that Lister wanted surgeons to battle, is invisible to her.We picture a blue child, suffering right before our eyes. Thatis not what hypothermia looks like. It is a child who is just afew degrees too cold, too sluggish, too slow to feed. It will besome time before the baby begins to lose weight, stops makingurine, develops pneumonia or a bloodstream infection. Longbefore that happensusually the morning after the delivery,perhaps the same nightthe mother will have hobbled to anauto-rickshaw, propped herself beside her husband, held hernew baby tight, and ridden the rutted roads home.

    From the nurses point of view, shed helped bring another lifeinto the world. If four per cent of the newborns later died athome, what could that possibly have to do with how shewrapped the mother and child? Or whether she washed herhands before putting on gloves? Or whether the blade withwhich she cut the umbilical cord was sterilized?

    Were infatuated with theprospect of technologicalsolutions to theseproblemsbaby warmers,say. You can still findhigh-tech incubators in rural

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    9 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • hospitals that sit mothballed because a replacement part wasntavailable, or because there was no electricity for them. Inrecent years, though, engineers have produced designsspecifically for the developing world. Dr. Steven Ringer, aneonatologist and BetterBirth leader, was an adviser for ateam that made a cheap, ingenious, award-winning incubatorfrom old car parts that are commonly available and easilyreplaced in low-income environments. Yet it hasnt taken off,either. Its in more museums than delivery rooms, helaments.

    As with most difficulties in global health care, lack ofadequate technology is not the biggest problem. We alreadyhave a great warming technology: a mothers skin. But even inhigh-income countries we do not consistently use it. In theUnited States, according to Ringer, more than half ofnewborns needing intensive care arrive hypothermic.Preventing hypothermia is a perfect example of an unsexytask: it demands painstaking effort without immediate reward.Getting hospitals and birth attendants to carry out even a fewof the tasks required for safer childbirth would save hundredsof thousands of lives. But how do we do that?

    The most common approach to changing behavior is to say topeople, Please do X. Please warm the newborn. Please washyour hands. Please follow through on the twenty-seven otherchildbirth practices that youre not doing. This is what we sayin the classroom, in instructional videos, and in public-servicecampaigns, and it works, but only up to a point.

    Then, theres the law-and-order approach: You must do X.We establish standards and regulations, and threaten topunish failures with fines, suspensions, the revocation oflicenses. Punishment can work. Behavioral economists haveeven quantified how averse people are to penalties. Inexperimental games, they will often quit playing rather thanrisk facing negative consequences. And that is the problemwith threatening to discipline birth attendants who are takingdifficult-to-fill jobs under intensely trying conditions. Theyll

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    10 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • quit.

    The kinder version of You must do X is to offer incentivesrather than penalties. Maybe we could pay birth attendants abonus for every healthy child who makes it past a week of life.But then you think about how hard it would be to make ascheme like that work, especially in poor settings. Youd needa sophisticated tracking procedure, to make sure that peoplearent gaming the system, and complex statistical calculations,to take prior risks into account. Theres also the impossiblequestion of how you split the reward among all the peopleinvolved. How much should the community health workerwho provided the prenatal care get? The birth attendant whohandled the first twelve hours of labor? The one who came onduty and handled the delivery? The doctor who was called inwhen things got complicated? The pharmacist who stockedthe antibiotic that the child required?

    Besides, neither penalties nor incentives achieve what werereally after: a system and a culture where X is what people do,day in and day out, even when no one is watching. You mustrewards mere compliance. Getting to X is what we domeans establishing X as the norm. And thats what we want:for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the otherlifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm.

    To create new norms, you have to understand peoples existingnorms and barriers to change. You have to understand whatsgetting in their way. So what about just working withhealth-care workers, one by one, to do just that? With theBetterBirth Project, we wondered, in particular, what wouldhappen if we hired a cadre of childbirth-improvement workersto visit birth attendants and hospital leaders, show them whyand how to follow a checklist of essential practices,understand their difficulties and objections, and help thempractice doing things differently. In essence, wed give themmentors.

    The experiment is just getting under way. The project has

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    11 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • I cant protect you fromeverything, but I can readyou stories that make youbelieve I can protect you

    from everything.BUY THE PRINT

    recruited only the first few of a hundred or so workers whomwe are sending out to hospitals across six regions of UttarPradesh in a trial that will involve almost two hundredthousand births over two years. Theres no certainty that ourapproach will succeed. But it seemed worth trying.

    Reactions that Ive heardboth abroad and at homehave been interestinglydivided. The most commonobjection is that, even if itworks, this kind ofone-on-one, on-site

    mentoring isnt scalable. But thats one thing it surely is. Ifthe intervention saves as many mothers and newborns as werehopingabout a thousand lives in the course of a year at thetarget hospitalsthen all that need be done is to hire anddevelop similar cadres of childbirth-improvement workers forother places around the country and potentially the world. Tomany people, that doesnt sound like much of a solution. Itwould require broad mobilization, substantial expense, andperhaps even the development of a new profession. But, tocombat the many antisepsis-like problems in the world, thatsexactly what has worked. Think about the creation ofanesthesiology: it meant doubling the number of doctors inevery operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduceilliteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools,trained professional teachers, and made education free andcompulsory for all children. To improve farming, governmentshave sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extensionagents to visit farmers across America and every corner of theworld and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing theircrop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective.They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in threeadults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a GreenRevolution that saved more than a billion people fromstarvation.

    In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, weve

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    12 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Ibecome enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether.We want frictionless, turnkey solutions to the majordifficulties of the worldhunger, disease, poverty. We preferinstructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives toinstitutions. People and institutions can feel messy andanachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it,uncontrolled variability.

    But technology and incentive programs are not enough.Diffusion is essentially a social process through which peopletalking to people spread an innovation, wrote Everett Rogers,the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated andspread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But,Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people theyknow and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Everychange requires effort, and the decision to make that effort isa social process.

    This is something that salespeople understand well. I onceasked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctorswhoare notoriously stubbornto adopt a new medicine. Evidenceis not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case youmay have. You must also apply the rule of seven touches.Personally touch the doctors seven times, and they will cometo know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, ifthey trust you, they will change. Thats why he stockeddoctors closets with free drug samples in person. Then hecould poke his head around the corner and ask, So how didyour daughter Debbies soccer game go? Eventually, this canbecome Have you seen this study on our new drug? Howabout giving it a try? As the rep had recognized, humaninteraction is the key force in overcoming resistance andspeeding change.

    n 1968, The Lancet published the results of a modest trialof what is now regarded as among the most importantmedical advances of the twentieth century. It wasnt a new

    drug or vaccine or operation. It was basically a solution ofsugar, salt, and water that you could make in your kitchen.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    13 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • The researchers gave the solution to victims of a choleraoutbreak in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh,and the results were striking.

    Cholera is a violent and deadly diarrheal illness, caused by thebacterium Vibrio cholera, which the victim usually ingests fromcontaminated water. The bacteria secrete a toxin that triggersa rapid outpouring of fluid into the intestine. The body, whichis sixty per cent water, becomes like a sponge being wrungout. The fluid pouring out is a cloudy white, likened to therunoff of washed rice. It produces projectile vomiting andexplosive diarrhea. Children can lose a third of their bodyswater in less than twenty-four hours, a fatal volume. Drinkingwater to replace the fluid loss is ineffective, because theintestine wont absorb it. As a result, mortality commonlyreached seventy per cent or higher. During the nineteenthcentury, cholera pandemics killed millions across Asia,Europe, Africa, and North America. The disease was dubbedthe Blue Death because of the cyanotic blue-gray color of theskin from extreme dehydration.

    In 1906, a partially effective treatment was found: intravenousfluid solutions reduced mortality to thirty per cent. Preventionwas the most effective approach. Modern sewage and watertreatment eliminated the disease in affluent countries.Globally, though, millions of children continued to die fromdiarrheal illness each year. Even if victims made it to amedical facility, the needles, plastic tubing, and litres ofintravenous fluid required for treatment were expensive, inshort supply, and dependent on medical workers who werethemselves in short supply, especially in outbreaks that oftenproduced thousands of victims.

    Then, in the nineteen-sixties, scientists discovered that sugarhelps the gut absorb fluid. Two American researchers, DavidNalin and Richard Cash, were in Dhaka during a choleraoutbreak. They decided to test the scientific findings, givingvictims an oral rehydration solution containing sugar as well assalt. Many people doubted that victims could drink enough of

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    14 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Why dont I tell you a littlebit about myself while youcheck to see if anything Im

    wearing was made in asweatshop.


    it to restore their fluid losses, typically ten to twenty litres aday. So the researchers confined the Dhaka trial totwenty-nine patients. The subjects proved to have no troubledrinking enough to reduce or even eliminate the need forintravenous fluids, and none of them died.

    Three years later, in 1971, an Indian physician named DilipMahalanabis was directing medical assistance at a WestBengal camp of three hundred and fifty thousand refugeesfrom Bangladeshs war of independence when cholera struck.Intravenous-fluid supplies ran out. Mahalanabis instructed histeam to try the Dhaka solution. Just 3.6 per cent died, anunprecedented reduction from the usual thirty per cent. Thesolution was actually better than intravenous fluids. If choleravictims were alert, able to drink, and supplied with enough ofit, they could almost always save their own lives.

    One might have expected people to clamor for the recipe afterthese results were publicized. Oral rehydration solution seemslike ether: a miraculous fix for a vivid, immediate, andterrifying problem. But it wasnt like ether at all.

    To understand why, you haveto imagine having a childthrowing up and pouring outdiarrhea like youve neverseen before. Making herdrink seems only to provokemore vomiting. Chasing the

    emesis and the diarrhea seems both torturous and futile.Many peoples natural inclination is to not feed the childanything.

    Furthermore, why believe that this particular mixture of sugarand salt would be any different from water or anything elseyou might have tried? And it is particular. Throw the saltconcentration off by a couple of teaspoons and the electrolyteimbalance could be dangerous. The child must also keepdrinking the stuff even after she feels better, for as long as the

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    15 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • diarrhea lasts, which is up to five days. Nurses routinely gotthese steps wrong. Why would villagers do any better?

    A decade after the landmark findings, the idea remainedstalled. Nothing much had changed. Diarrheal diseaseremained the worlds biggest killer of children under the ageof five.

    In 1980, however, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization calledBRAC decided to try to get oral rehydration therapy adoptednationwide. The campaign required reaching a mostlyilliterate population. The most recent public-healthcampaignto teach family planninghad been deeplyunpopular. The messages the campaign needed to spread werecomplicated.

    Nonetheless, the campaign proved remarkably successful. Agem of a book published in Bangladesh, A Simple Solution,tells the story. The organization didnt launch a mass-mediacampaignonly twenty per cent of the population had aradio, after all. It attacked the problem in a way that isroutinely dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by goingdoor to door, person by person, and just talking.

    It started with a pilot project that set out to reach some sixtythousand women in six hundred villages. The logistics weredaunting. Who, for instance, would do the teaching? Howwere those workers going to travel? How was their security tobe assured? The BRAC leaders planned the best they could andthen made adjustments on the fly.

    They recruited teams of fourteen young women, a cook, and amale supervisor, figuring that the supervisor would protectthem from others as they travelled, and the womens numberswould protect them from the supervisor. They travelled onfoot, pitched camp near each village, fanned out door to door,and stayed until they had talked to women in every hut. Theyworked long days, six days a week. Each night after dinner,they held a meeting to discuss what went well and what didntand to share ideas on how to do better. Leaders periodically

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    16 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • debriefed them, as well.

    The workers were only semi-literate, but they helped distilltheir sales script into seven easy-to-remember messages: forinstance, severe diarrhea leads to death from dehydration; thesigns of dehydration include dry tongue, sunken eyes, thirst,severe weakness, and reduced urination; the way to treatdehydration is to replace salt and water lost from the body,starting with the very first loose stool; a rehydration solutionprovides the most effective way to do this. BRACs scientistshad to figure out how the workers could teach the recipe forthe solution. Villagers had no precise measuring implementsspoons were locally made in nonstandard sizes. The leadersconsidered issuing special measuring spoons with the recipeon the handle. But these would be costly; most peoplecouldnt read the recipe; and how were the spoons to bereplaced when lost? Eventually, the team hit upon using fingermeasures: a fistful of raw sugar plus a three-finger pinch ofsalt mixed in half a seer of watera pint measure commonlyused by villagers when buying milk and oil. Tests showed thatmothers could make this with sufficient accuracy.

    Initially, the workers taught up to twenty mothers per day. Butmonitors visiting the villages a few weeks later found that thequality of teaching suffered on this larger scale, so the workerswere restricted to ten households a day. Then a new salarysystem was devised to pay each worker according to howmany of the messages the mothers retained when the monitorfollowed up. The quality of teaching improved substantially.The field workers soon realized that having the mothers makethe solution themselves was more effective than just showingthem. The workers began looking for diarrhea cases whenthey arrived in a village, and treating them to show howeffective and safe the remedy was. The scientists alsoinvestigated various questions that came up, such as whetherclean water was required. (They found that, although boiledwater was preferable, contaminated water was better thannothing.)

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    17 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM


    Early signs were promising. Mothers seemed to retain the keymessages. Analysis of their sugar solutions showed that three-quarters made them properly, and just four in a thousand hadpotentially unsafe salt levels. So BRAC and the Bangladeshigovernment took the program nationwide. They hired,trained, and deployed thousands of workers region by region.The effort was, inevitably, imperfect. But, by going door todoor through more than seventy-five thousand villages, theyshowed twelve million families how to save their children.

    The program was stunningly successful. Use of oralrehydration therapy skyrocketed. The knowledge becameself-propagating. The program had changed the norms.

    Coaxing villagers to make thesolution with their ownhands and explain themessages in their own words,while a trainer observed andguided them, achieved far

    more than any public-service ad or instructional video couldhave done. Over time, the changes could be sustained withtelevision and radio, and the growth of demand led to thedevelopment of a robust market for manufactured oralrehydration salt packets. Three decades later, national surveyshave found that almost ninety per cent of children with severediarrhea were given the solution. Child deaths from diarrheaplummeted more than eighty per cent between 1980 and2005.

    As other countries adopted Bangladeshs approach, globaldiarrheal deaths dropped from five million a year to twomillion, despite a fifty-per-cent increase in the worldspopulation during the past three decades. Nonetheless, only athird of children in the developing world receive oralrehydration therapy. Many countries tried to implement atarms length, going low touch, without sandals on theground. As a recent study by the Gates Foundation and theUniversity of Washington has documented, those countries

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    18 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Shave failed almost entirely. People talking to people is stillhow the worlds standards change.

    urgeons finally did upgrade their antiseptic standards atthe end of the nineteenth century. But, as is often thecase with new ideas, the effort required deeper changes

    than anyone had anticipated. In their blood-slick, viscera-encrusted black coats, surgeons had seen themselves aswarriors doing hemorrhagic battle with little more than theirbare hands. A few pioneering Germans, however, seized onthe idea of the surgeon as scientist. They traded in their blackcoats for pristine laboratory whites, refashioned theiroperating rooms to achieve the exacting sterility of abacteriological lab, and embraced anatomic precision overspeed.

    The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was nothow to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist.Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went toGermany to study with its surgical luminaries became ferventconverts to their thinking and their standards. They returnedas apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to killgerms) but also for the much more exacting demands ofaseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterilegloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through theirown students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideasworldwide.

    In childbirth, we have only begun to accept that the criticalpractices arent going to spread themselves. Simpleawareness isnt going to solve anything. We need our salesforce and our seven easy-to-remember messages. And in manyplaces around the world the concerted, person-by-personeffort of changing norms is under way.

    I recently asked BetterBirth workers in India whether theydyet seen a birth attendant change what she does. Yes, theysaid, but theyve found that it takes a while. They begin byproviding a day of classroom training for birth attendants and

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    19 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • No. I can still see you.BUY THE PRINT

    hospital leaders in the checklist of practices to be followed.Then they visit them on site to observe as they try to applythe lessons.

    Sister Seema Yadav, a twenty-four-year-old, round-facednurse three years out of school, was one of the trainers.(Nurses are called sisters in India, a carryover from theBritish usage.) Her first assignment was to follow a thirty-year-old nurse with vastly more experience than she had.Watching the nurse take a woman through labor and delivery,she saw how little of the training had been absorbed. Theroom had not been disinfected; blood from a previous birthremained in a bucket. When the woman came inmoaning,contractions speeding upthe nurse didnt check her vitalsigns. She didnt wash her hands. She prepared no emergencysupplies. After delivery, she checked the newbornstemperature with her hand, not a thermometer. Instead ofwarming the baby against the mothers skin, she handed thenewborn to the relatives.

    When Sister Seema pointed out the discrepancy between theteaching and the practice, the nurse was put out. She gavemany reasons that steps were missedthere was no time, theywere swamped with deliveries, there was seldom athermometer at hand, the cleaners never did their job. SisterSeemaa cheerful, bubbly, fast talkertook her to thecleaner on duty and together they explained why cleaning therooms between deliveries was so important. They went to themedical officer in charge and asked for a thermometer to besupplied. At her second and third visits, disinfection seemedmore consistent. A thermometer had been found in a storagecloset. But the nurse still hadnt changed much of her ownroutine.

    By the fourth or fifth visit,their conversations hadshifted. They shared cups ofchai and began talking aboutwhy you must wash hands

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    20 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • even if you wear gloves (because of holes in the gloves and thetendency to touch equipment without them on), and whychecking blood pressure matters (because hypertension is asign of eclampsia, which, when untreated, is a common causeof death among pregnant women). They learned a bit abouteach other, too. Both turned out to have one childSisterSeema a four-year-old boy, the nurse an eight-year-old girl.The nurse lived in the capital, a two-hour bus ride away. Shewas divorced, living with her mother, and struggled with thecommute. Shed been frustrated not to find a hospital postingin the city. She worked for days at a stretch, sleeping on a cotwhen she got a break. Sister Seema commiserated, and sharedher own hopes for her family and her future. With time, itbecame clearer to the nurse that Sister Seema was there onlyto help and to learn from the experience herself. They evenexchanged mobile-phone numbers and spoke between visits.When Sister Seema didnt have the answer to a question, shemade sure she got one.

    Soon, she said, the nurse began to change. After several visits,she was taking temperatures and blood pressures properly,washing her hands, giving the necessary medicationsalmosteverything. Sister Seema saw it with her own eyes.

    Shed had to move on to another pilot site after that, however.And although the project is tracking the outcomes of mothersand newborns, it will be a while before we have enoughnumbers to know if a difference has been made. So I got thenurses phone number and, with a translator to help with theHindi, I gave her a call.

    It had been four months since Sister Seemas visit ended. Iasked her whether shed made any changes. Lots, she said.

    What was the most difficult one? I asked.

    Washing hands, she said. I have to do it so many times!

    What was the easiest?

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    21 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Taking the vital signs properly. Before, she said, we did ithaphazardly. Afterward, everything became much moresystematic.

    She said that she had eventually begun to see the effects.Bleeding after delivery was reduced. She recognized problemsearlier. She rescued a baby who wasnt breathing. Shediagnosed eclampsia in a mother and treated it. You couldhear her pride as she told her stories.

    Many of the changes took practice for her, she said. She hadto learn, for instance, how to have all the critical suppliesblood-pressure cuff, thermometer, soap, clean gloves, babyrespiratory mask, medicationslined up and ready for whenshe needed them; how to fit the use of them into her routine;how to convince mothers and their relatives that the bestthing for a child was to be bundled against the mothers skin.But, step by step, Sister Seema had helped her to do it. Sheshowed me how to get things done practically, the nurse said.

    Why did you listen to her? I asked. She had only a fractionof your experience.

    In the beginning, she didnt, the nurse admitted. The firstday she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling betterabout the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

    Why? I asked.

    All the nurse could think to say was She was nice.

    She was nice?

    She smiled a lot.

    That was it?

    It wasnt like talking to someone who was trying to findmistakes, she said. It was like talking to a friend.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    22 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM

  • Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public-health researcher, became a New Yorker staffwriter in 1998.

    That, I think, was the answer. Since then, the nurse haddeveloped her own way of explaining why newborns needed tobe warmed skin to skin. She said that she now tells families,Inside the uterus, the baby is very warm. So when the babycomes out it should be kept very warm. The mothers skindoes this.

    I hadnt been sure if she was just telling me what I wanted tohear. But when I heard her explain how shed put her ownwords to what shed learned, I knew that the ideas had spread.Do the families listen? I asked.

    Sometimes they dont, she said. Usually, they do.

    Slow Ideas - The New Yorker

    23 of 23 12/03/15 2:24 PM