Author and physician Atul Gawande, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, spoke with TONY about failure, medicine and his love of Vampire Weekend.
What’s your talk at the New Yorker Festival, “Failure and Rescue,” about?
It’s about the idea that whether you prevent failure might be less important than whether you can rescue a situation from failure once it has occurred. The great hospitals don’t necessarily have fewer things go wrong—they are able to make sure you don’t die if something goes wrong. That’s the bottom line. And it turns out to have very broad applicability. Under situations of complexity, how you handle failure may be more important than whether you can avoid failure in the first place.
You’re also speaking with Vampire Weekend at the festival.
Yes, which is going to be really great. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do.
A talk on resilience and an interview with an indie-rock band—that’s a pretty wide variety.
It’s great. I sometimes tell the story that when I met my now-wife—we were 18—her mother asked me what I was going to do when I grew up. And my answer was that I wanted to be a professional dilettante. And the New Yorker fest is like what I’ve been hoping for my whole life. I get to come from work at the hospital, go talk with a great band, see the concert, and then talk about a highfalutin subject like failure and rescue.
It seems like you’re one of few people writing about public health who is read by the larger public. Are you conscious of that role, and do you feel a certain sense of responsibility?
I don’t feel a sense of responsibility. I feel the need to resist a sense of responsibility. [Laughs] The writing works if I’m taking on subjects where I’m not trying to actually explain or preach anything; instead, I’m tackling a subject that, from the very beginning, I don’t know the answer to, and I’m puzzled about how this thing really works. I think it’s just lucky happenstance that the things that are interesting and puzzling to me, and worth trying to work out in a story, have turned out to be things that are interesting to other people.
You also write about politics. How do you think the current election is going?
The health-care subject has been completely fascinating, because I live in Massachusetts, where Romneycare came to be. It’s been a remarkable success; it’s transformed my practice. I haven’t seen an uninsured patient in more than four years. I’m a cancer surgeon, and 10 to 15 percent of my patients were uninsured, and we were trying to figure out, like, how do we get them therapy? And it’s just disappeared. So here’s this bipartisan solution worked out at a state level that gets adopted at a national level, and the debate is all about an attack on the idea that this is a government takeover. Health care has receded as a major part of the discussion. It hasn’t resonated in quite the same way, in part because Romney has a very hard time parsing out why he is against what he had been for as a governor.
I guess there hasn’t been as much talk about health care since the Supreme Court decision.
Yeah. That was the tipping point where it went from front page to—you know, it’s been long pushed off by Clint Eastwood. [Laughs]
Well, when you get in an argument with a chair, that trumps everything.
It really does.
“School of Rock” with Atul Gawande and Vampire Weekend is at Acura at SIR Stage37on Oct 6 (508 W 37th St between Tenth and Eleventh Aves; 10pm; $35); Gawande speaks on “Failure and Rescue” at the SVA Theatre on Oct 7 (333 W 23rd St between Eighth and Ninth Aves; 11am; $30). Visit newyorker.com/festival f