Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Marty Makary, MD: What's Next After "Unaccountable"?

Marty Makary MD, MPH and me at
the National Patient Safety Congress May 2013
In his New York Times Bestseller Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care, Johns Hopkins cancer surgeon Marty Makary reveals that the U.S. medical system, in many ways the best in the world, too often allows bad doctors and systemic flaws to go unchecked.  A dramatic and startling video trailer accompanied the book’s September 2012 release. Many of us in the patient advocate community were pleased to see a medical insider publicly validate concerns we'd been talking up for years. But as the book gained media attention, Makary braced himself for pushback from his medical colleagues. 

I was introduced to Makary last year by my friend Patty Skolnik, whose tragic story of losing her son to medical harm is told in the Unaccountable book trailer. Makary was later kind enough to read and provide a comment about my book. When we both ended up attending this year’s annual Congress of the National Patient Safety Foundation, I had a chance to sit down with him and ask about his work. 

I found Makary thoroughly accessible, genuine, and committed to the ideas he writes about. At times during our interview, like a surgeon taking a moment to ponder the consequences of each stroke of the scalpel, he chooses his words with great care. It's a trait that must serve him well in the OR, commenting on live television (he lends medical opinion to CNN, Fox News and others), and in that tricky place where challenging the medical profession to which you've devoted your entire adult life might just harbor consequences.

The following is edited for length.

Pat Mastors: In your book, Unaccountable, you go public with some of the dirty underbelly
of what happens in medical care. Was there a tipping point that made you decide to write it?
Marty Makary: Not really a tipping point. The idea goes back quite a while. When I was in school getting a Masters degree in public health (I took time off during medical school to get this degree), I was talking with one of my mentors about being a surgeon, about going through the surgical training. And they said, it’s going to be rough, and you’ll have no time to do research, and you’ll see a lot of unethical stuff going on that’s going to bother you. And rather than trying to change the system as a resident, and risk losing the opportunity to be a surgeon, do your job, focus on being a good surgeon, write down stories as you go, and then when you get done, do the research and pull it together. So that's what I did. As for the timing, when I heard all the demagoguery going around about the Affordable Care Act, it made me so frustrated to hear the political pundits miss the boat, talking about how to finance the broken system. And I thought, you don’t just need to find ways to finance the broken system, you need to fix the broken system-- the preventable harm, the medical mistakes and the wide variations in quality.

Pat Mastors: What kind of pushback have you gotten since releasing the book?
Marty Makary: Retired doctors wrote me after the Wall St. Journal article appeared. One of them said he’d never seen a medical mistake in his entire career and he thinks that I crossed the line and did a big disservice to the general public. I told him if he’d like to read the book I’d be happy to sit down and discuss the book with him. And he said, he hadn’t read it. I’ve braced myself for reaction, but by a ratio of 9 to1, the feedback has been positive. And then right as the book came out, the Institute of Medicine released its report that up to 30 % of medical procedures may not be necessary. So that lent some urgency to the message.

Pat Mastors: Are you comfortable with being so public on this topic?
Marty Makary: I feel very privileged to have had media outlets come to me over the years for medical opinion or comment. This developed over time from a lot of my research over the years, and relationships cultivated. I actually turn down a lot of media opportunities. It’s just not in-line with what we’re trying to accomplish.

Pat Mastors: In the book, you talk about a doctor during your training very popular with patients, but privately referred to by colleagues as HODAD ("Hands of Death and Destruction"). Have you heard from him?
Marty Makary: Has not gotten in touch with me. 

Pat Mastors: Does he know who he is?
Marty Makary: We went through incredible detail to make sure the information in the book was not traceable.

Pat Mastors: Is he still practicing?
Marty Makary: (Pause.) I’m not sure if he’s still practicing. 

Pat Mastors: You have to be very careful, don’t you? 
Marty Makary: It’s always hard to challenge assumptions in a very profitable industry. Health care represents 20 cents on every US dollar. There are many stakeholders. But I think the only thing that’s really advanced many industries historically to get better is people questioning what’s going on. I feel privileged just to be a part of this conversation. Many others have been asking the questions I’ve asked, but often they’re not physicians or clinicians. They’ve been spot-on, but have been written off with “well, you’re not a physician”. Maybe it’s the same message, but from different voice.

Pat Mastors: How has your life changed since the book came out?
Marty Makary: Many physicians groups and hospital ratings agencies have invited me to speak to them, and members of Congress have said some of this stuff makes so much sense, can you help us figure out how to discuss legislation. Since the book came out I get an invitation a day to speak somewhere. I probably do one a week, and squeeze in another in the same area if it works.

Pat Mastors: Would you like to do more of it?
Marty Makary: I love being a doctor more than anything else in the world. And I want to be a good role model for the students and the trainees. And also it’s fun and rewarding and exciting, and it’s what I trained to be. I’ve had many opportunities, and it would be easy just to “give it all up”, now that every hospital wants a chief quality officer, and I’ve had many requests to consider that. But for now, I enjoy being very clinically busy. And it gives me credibility in talking about complex cases and differences in patient populations in different hospitals, because the most common reflex people have when they know public reporting is on the horizon is they say “my patients are sicker and our problems are more complex”. So I can speak to that notion with credibility.

Pat Mastors: We come to conferences like this, collaborating on quality improvement…but does our work really seem to be moving the dial on quality? What is it really going to take for there to be significant culture change?
Marty Makary: I’m excited to see some small steps in changing the culture. Behaviors that were acceptable when I was a resident are no longer acceptable today. And unfortunately when hospitals allow one bad behavior to go without accountability, it sets the standard for accountability for the entire organization, and says “that’s what you can get away with.” It’s very disruptive for culture. So there are some good changes in the culture of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

And then you see these studies that show we were only looking at the tip of the iceberg with medical harm, and there haven’ been noticeable improvements, and I couldn’t agree more. And I think taking care of patients on a regular basis has taught me that there’s talk and there’s action in safety. And we’ve suffered from bad science in safety. And now that we’ve learned how to measure it, we’re asking now what do we do? And I think we need to do something highly innovative and highly disruptive from an innovation standpoint in the same way other industries have done it. 

Pat Mastors: Can you give me an example?
Marty Makary: In education, we’ve got this horrible burden on society which is the tremendous cost of higher education. You need a quarter of a million dollars now to send your kid to many of the good schools out there. Well, this one guy at Stanford is making his classes totally available to the public, all the course and tests and feedback, and he got 160,000 students to sign up for it, this class that he just made freely available. He didn’t recruit those people, they saw the opportunity. He’s now talking about reducing the cost of higher education by 90 percent over the next 10 years. That’s a highly innovative and disruptive intervention. We need something like that in health care. We need a whole new look at transparency that measures, captures, and feeds the data back. We need external peer review, something I wrote about in JAMA last week. We can’t rely on internal peer review because it’s contaminated by the local politics of an organization and a department. If you only have one surgeon that does chest surgery, how are you going to internally provide per review of those complications? You need external peer review. External peer review might have prevented these instances of egregious overtreatment, like hundreds of patients getting unnecessary stents, and other things.

Pat Mastors: What do you think you uniquely bring to the dynamic of quality improvement and culture change in health care?
Marty Makary: (pause). I see myself as an observer of a movement. Of people that are on the front lines of health care saying “this isn’t right…we need to do something differently”. And in Unaccountable, I almost present myself as a journalist sharing first-hand accounts. I don’t claim to be the leader in this effort to make health care more honest and transparent. But I think we in the medical profession should be very proud that doctors are stepping in to say we are over-treating patients so frequently...that we’re seeing these exciting things like Choosing Wisely, where physicians are coming up with a list of treatments that we need to warm patients about if they’re recommended to them. The external peer review process I wrote about in JAMA is being modeled in a few places. All these steps help.

I think that the wisdom to make health care safer exists; we’re just not listening to it. And I say we as doctors and nurses…we all say we all know how to make health care safer, but our wisdom is not being solicited. We know what to do, we just don’t feel management and people at the policy level are empowering us to re-design care. We feel that that we only own a small piece of the care process, whereas we used to own the entire delivery of the care.

Pat Mastors: You said you see yourself as an observer. But are you also a catalyst? Do you think this book has changed the dialogue?
Marty Makary: I’ve been very pleased that a lot of doctors have come up to me and said thank you for speaking up about what I’ve been watching as a disparity “in our local area” for decades. I’ve had hundreds of nurses contact me saying I was fired or let go or threatened because I spoke up about somebody who was doing unethical things. I don’t condemn many things in life but I have come out very strongly against hospitals for firing nurses for speaking up about safety…and doctors too. And that’s the whole problem, is there’s been almost a gag on the whole subject. When one nurse gets fired for speaking up, it sends a message out to every nurse around the country: speak up and run the risk of losing your job. It’s an intangible risk, but it sends a horrible message. And we need to be moving the other way. We need to be saying “tell us your stories”. We need to create a safe place and give you counseling to help you with the trauma of seeing this harm.

Pat Mastors: So are you shaping up to be a champion of nurses?
Marty Makary: I’m a big believer in peer-to-peer champions. But it’s been a very nice privilege to be welcomed into their  [the nurses’] circles.

But the thing that brings me the most joy is watching the light bulb go off with medical students…challenging things that don’t look right. Improving the poor communication that leads to harm. The lack of humility. It’s hard to measure in databases but can have huge impact with younger students.

Pat Mastors: How about Marty Makary personally?
Marty Makary: It’s busy, because I’m still trying to find time to operate 2-3 days a week, and see patients in the clinic another day a week, and work with students and research fellows and projects that will have high-impact value in medical literature. But the thing I love most about traveling outside is what I learn. I find out which hospitals are using best practices and learning a lot. If I were to re-write the book today it would probably be a bit different because I learned so much from the feedback from the book. You realize, for instance, sometime a small hospital in the middle of nowhere has completely different struggles, and things we talk about don’t always apply to them.

Pat Mastors: What is the next step?
Marty Makary: Right now I’m just trying to learn about day-to-day struggles, and find out why doctors are burning out. I’m also learning more about frail patients and why their conditions don’t tolerate many medical procedures due to this frailty. This is a big area of opportunity to learn about.

Pat Mastors: Will you write another book?
Marty Makary: I’m thinking about it.
We'll keep you updated on Marty Makary's endeavors.

I also had a great conversation this week with e-Patient Dave deBronkart, author of Let Patients Help. Next on Islands of Excellence, Dave shares the "secret sauce" that makes him so successful in spreading his message of patient engagement through his international keynote speeches.


  1. TRANSPARENCY is the answer! I initiated this Sunshine In Legislation Bill:
    Please sign and share:
    My Mother's story of medical harm:

  2. How blessed is Dr. Makary to have the support of his hospital to be able to cut through and talk about the problems many people in the profession have been wanting to say for a long time. Myself included. The students are our future. So many good points were made in this interview but when you talk about students, that's when it brings tears to my eyes. How can we permit or support any kind of administration that would force or cause a young person to have to lie or be punished for reporting the truth? So many points. Counseling for doctors and nurses, and patients! External Peer Review! Peer to Peer Champions! I often think about the many students who start out with an ideal about being a doctor, and who might experience a harm or an abuse by their superiors, during their residencies. I'm sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that when they are not permitted to report and accountability is not taken by their superiors, that they will carry that patient or that incident or that wound in their heart and mind for the rest of their lives. This is wrong for our young people. thank you Pat Masters and Dr. Marty Makary.

  3. WOW Marty for president, Pat for vice president!
    I have never read such a well done /honest interview in my life.

  4. Thank you, Pat Mastors and Dr. Marty Makary! This kind of honesty and collaboration is refreshing! Please clone yourselves!

  5. Pat and Marty,
    How much better you have made the patient safety movement by open honest communication. We all can learn to do this... patient and physician in the same boat rowing in the same direction to get to the same place for the same purpose. SAFE, QUALITY, COMPASSIONATE CARE I am honored to be friends with both of you.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. People like Marty Makary show us that champions exist and better is possible. It's very uplifting to share these stories :).