Looking at a problem in new ways can be the source of real scientific breakthroughs.
There was Galileo’s new “view” of the heavens; Einstein’s new view of motion, time and space; and Mary Baker Eddy’s new view on the source of health.
Glimpses of breakthroughs in the medical systems of our time are appearing everywhere. And, they clearly result from the willingness of those committed to health outcomes – rather than health prescriptions – to reframe how we view patients, sickness and treatment.
Dr. Donald Berwick, M.D., illustrates this point using a remarkable innovation from the 18th century. Berwick is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). He sees that the development of a revolutionary navigational tool in the shipping industry has lessons for improving healthcare today.
In 1714 the British government offered a large monetary prize to anyone who could develop a sufficiently accurate clock to insure precise longitudinal positioning. This would solve the problem of ships going badly off course.
A British carpenter and clock maker, John Harrison, took on the challenge. Between 1730 and 1749 Harrison built three clocks, each successively more complex, accurate, and large. The third one, known as H3, stood almost two feet tall and weighed nearly 100 pounds.
Then, Harrison “…began to realize, after all this time, that he had been following the wrong path with his earlier experimental marine clocks.” He
“…commissioned John Jefferys, a London watchmaker, to make a [pocket] watch following Harrison’s own novel designs. …Harrison discovered that timepieces with a relatively small, high frequency oscillator (such as a fast beating, watch balance)…are much more stable … than the earlier large ‘portable clocks’. “
Berwick uses this fascinating story of solving the longitude problem to talk about the need for similar breakthroughs in health care.
Amid the recognized successes of modern medicine, the problems with health care in the United States are well known: accelerating costs, poor outcomes, underserved populations, overuse of pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures. But what are Berwick’s solutions? Interestingly, he doesn’t focus on making drug delivery better or managing the human body or more efficient billing systems.
Instead, Berwick has looked in another direction and found that a more altruistic approach to life, including such things as empathy, compassion, justice, and kindness are actually equated with better health.
Although applying these qualities to modern health care would be considered by some as a “new view”, the Bible reminds us that there are practical and timely health results when patients (or anyone) feels truly cared for: it’s been around for a long time when it presents a similar altruistic standard with a promise of better health:
“(f)ree the people you have put in prison unfairly and undo their chains. Free those to whom you are unfair and stop their hard labor. Share your food with the hungry and bring poor, homeless people into your own homes. When you see someone who has no clothes, give him yours, and don’t refuse to help your own relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.” [Isa. 58:6-8]
You could say that making altruism the center of health care in individual lives and systems is like the H4 – the Tour de Force – of health care.
Systems change often begins first with a change in individual thinking and then trying out new practices. Taking to heart the guidance given originally by the Biblical author, and more recently by Dr. Berwick, will give an innovative spiritual impulse to our own health and to the health care system.
We can minimize current mechanical approaches and maximize the heart of health care – an H4 in the making.