Like his other books, this work is a mix of his previous pieces for the New Yorker as well as original writing. Gawande tackles an issue oft overlooked in his prior works and within medicine at large: what to do when medicine has no more to offer. The book unfolds by describing what occurs when medicine (and healthcare in general, including non-physician providers / caregivers) try to go beyond their limitations and fit patients to their models of care, instead of trying to shape care around patients. Anecdote by anecdote, Gawande describes patients, friends, and family members and their struggles with the healthcare-industrial complex. The overall tapestry is one of failure: the system did not work for these patients.
And how could it? The healthcare system is a Frankenstein collection of parts that has been optimized to fix simple, close-ended problems. The ear infection, the ruptured appendix, even the small breast cancer - all of these are easily tackled by the healthcare system. Where we stumble is when we attempt to shoehorn patients with complex or chronic problems into this model of one-and-done care. It simply does not work, and can often do as much harm as good.
In Being Mortal, Gawande attempts to show how in certain corners of the country, patients and providers are pushing back. From Oregon to Boston, initiatives have developed that attempt to create better environments for patients to live and to heal, without sacrificing overall outcomes. Surprisingly, in some cases, patients do better with less than with more care.
If one is to quibble with this book, it is that Gawande neglects to provide enough concrete, actionable advice about what to do regarding the issues he raises. For a general audience, he does not spend sufficient time discussing concepts like durable power of attorney, living wills, DNR/DNI orders, or even how to learn more about it. Gawande spends a chapter detailing his own trip down one flight of stairs to the geriatric center beneath his clinic and what he learned, but most of his readers are unlikely to have such easy access to a place like that. Admittedly, that is not the point of the book as it is not meant to be a self-help book about chronic health, geriatric, or end of life issues. Still, for a book that hopes to effect change, an appendix pointing out where one can learn more would have been nice.
Overall, the book is a worthwhile read for anyone who is elderly, is responsible for an elderly person, or cares for an elderly person. In other words, everyone should read this book. It is not a light-hearted read, but it is something better: an important read. While the ultimate outcome cannot be avoided, we can control how we prepare ourselves and each other for it, and in the process, live better, more fulfilling lives.
Other Books By Atul Gawande:
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