Surgeon, data geek, outspoken advocate: Meet the new CEO of Amazon’s health partnership

Dr. Atul Gawande, the new CEO of Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway’s joint healthcare venture, it a well-known surgeon and healthcare reform advocate. (TED Conference Photo / James Duncan Davidson, via Flickr)

The joint healthcare venture from Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway finally has a leader.

Surgeon and Harvard professor Dr. Atul Gawande was named its CEO Wednesday, and he has a monumental task before him: Innovating wide-reaching reforms that can increase the efficiency — and decrease the cost — of healthcare in the U.S.

So who is Gawande? In a few short words: A surgeon, a data geek and an outspoken advocate on topics from healthcare reform to immigration. And while there’s no telling what direction he’ll take the venture, Gawande’s views and experience certainly give some interesting hints.

Gawande is well qualified for the job, to say the least. He’s a well-respected surgeon, teacher and thought leader. He has an undergraduate degree from Stanford, an MA in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford and not one but two graduate degrees from Harvard, in both medicine and public health. He even received a McArthur award — a.k.a. the “genius award” — in 2006 at just 40 years old.

But Gawande is, first and foremost, a longtime surgeon. He brings an on-the-ground, clinical perspective to his new role, something that makes him relatively unique in the healthcare administration space. Most large healthcare CEOs don’t have MDs.

He’s also an outspoken advocate and thought leader on healthcare reform, giving speeches and even writing New York Times bestsellers on the subject. His experience as a surgeon is evident in that work, giving him the advantage of both a birds-eye view of the healthcare system and an intimate understanding of doctors’ day-to-day struggles.

Until his new appointment, he was also the founding executive director for Ariadne Labs, a nonprofit that aims to create scalable health solutions around major health events, like childbirth and major surgery. It is a joint venture between Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where Gawande practices medicine and teaches. He is also a professor at the Harvard Medical School.

“The cause of our troubles is actually the complexity that science has given us,” Gawande said during a recent TED Talk titled “How do we heal medicine?”

“In every field, knowledge has exploded, but it has brought complexity, it has brought specialization,” he said. That means the system’s component parts work well, but they don’t work together smoothly, leading to extreme inefficiencies. His solution: A united health system that relies on data.

“When you are a specialist, you can’t see the end result very well. You have to become really interested in data, unsexy as that sounds,” Gawande said.

In the talk, he describes a vision of healthcare becoming a “pit crew” working together as a whole, versus a collection of “cowboys” blazing their own independent paths.

But there’ no clear roadmap on how to get to that point, especially if the change is being driven by a private company like the new venture. The most obvious path towards having a fully integrated and connected healthcare system would be a government-sponsored one, potentially including a single-payer healthcare system like those in Canada and the U.K. It seems unlikely the new venture would advocate for that path.

Gawande also doesn’t go into detail on how to make using healthcare data more efficient. The industry is far behind others in leveraging its own data, partially because healthcare data is highly regulated, something that won’t change any time soon.

Despite that challenge, Gawande’s dedication to data-driven solutions is extensive. Just skim his 2015 piece published in The New Yorker on healthcare costs disparities — every point in his argument is rooted in a data point, an approach that no doubt endeared him to Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Like Bezos, Gawande is outspoken on another issue: Immigration. He’s a second-generation immigrant himself, the child of two Indian immigrants who met in Brooklyn.

His Twitter feed is filled with moderate but firm criticisms of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy, particularly the recent “no tolerance” policy that has led the administration to separate thousands of young children from their parents as they attempt to cross the border illegally.

But he has also shared critical views on other federal policies, from the recent denuclearization talks with North Korea to tariffs to the administration’s rollback of Obamacare protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.

Gawande’s outspokenness sets him apart from many corporate leaders, including Bezos, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

It may lend him to being more daring and innovative in his approach to solving the healthcare system’s deep challenges, a problem that’s clearly close to his heart.

But his position remains a huge challenge, and despite the new details released Wednesday there’s still very little information on what the new venture’s goals are and how it will go about achieving them.

The companies say the initial goal of the project is creating “technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.” Its long-term goal is “improving employee satisfaction and reducing costs.”

But unlike most industries, any innovation or new technology in healthcare needs the buy-in of a complex web of stakeholders and government regulations, from private insurance companies to the U.S.’s thousands of independnet health systems. At the moment, it’s unclear how a private company would even go about trying to make that change.

What is clear is that the companies would be hard-pressed to find someone in a better position to lead the charge. Gawande is an insider with intimate knowledge of the healthcare system but has just enough of an outsider — not to mention tech-focused — streak to shake things up.