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Interviewing My Hero And UNC Commencement Speaker Dr. Atul Gawande

Thania Benios Health and Science Editor at UNC

It’s not often that you get the chance to interview your personal hero on the day you become a doctor, but yesterday, I got to do just that. Minutes after I graduated from UNC School of Medicine, I had the chance to speak with UNC commencement speaker Dr. AtulGawande. Dr. Gawande is a Harvard surgeon, best-selling author and has been named one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers by TIME magazine. His acclaim comes from his ability to write about health care problems in a way that is easy to understand and powerful enough to effect change.

What you can’t read in his bio, however, is just how incredibly warm, approachable and tall he is. Though he had just spent two hours in 85-degree weather while giving a speech in his doctoral robes, he was the picture of cool, calm and collected when he introduced himself.

We started off by chatting about what we had in common. Like him, I had also gotten a Master in Public Health degree in addition to my Medical Degree, and I’m hoping to continue writing about medicine and health care during my career as a surgeon. I am also heading out to Stanford soon, his alma mater, for my residency training.

In his commencement speech, he had spoken about his time at Stanford and about some of his ill-advised antics that ultimately helped him find his way to medicine and writing. As a newly minted doctor hoping to follow in his footsteps, I was very excited to get the chance to find out more about how he built the career he did.

Credit The American Library Association
Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Medicine is the obvious thing for the Indian immigrant son of two doctors,” he said with a grin. “Writing is not an obvious thing at all. It was a late blooming career.”

“I was not a very good writer in college,” Dr. Gawande said. “I was a surgery resident when a friend started an internet magazine which became Slate…but in 1996, no one wanted to write for a magazine starting on Netscape browser on the internet so he had to beg friends to provide content.”

Despite his hectic schedule, he saw writing as a way he could reflect on everything he was experiencing and learning in the hospital. Now, he uses his writing as a way to explore the complexities of the current health care field.

“The fascinating thing to me is that when I’m writing about being a doctor, I’m as much talking to doctors as I am talking to people who are lay people because we’re so siloed,” he said. “We don’t know what it’s like to be an internist if you’re a surgeon and what it’s like to be a surgeon if you’re an internist. Because I get to have this platform of writing, I can go around and just ask people.”  

This interest and ability to take on other perspectives in the health care system, including those of his patients, is one of the reasons he has become so influential in changing health policy. Dr. Gawande reflected on how this could be a powerful tool for all doctors. 

Credit Hannah Coletti, UNC medical student
Dr. Gawande shaking hands with graduating medical student Justin Miller.

“Having people write from the experience of their patients, I think that has really been powerful and an important experience,” he said. “That ability to get out of your own shoes, follow someone and understand what it’s like for them to walk through the system and not just see it through your perspective, your own complaints as a doctor about your paperwork and the lack of time. You also see how all of that affects the patients too.”

Connecting with patients isn’t the only thing that new doctors have to worry about. The Affordable Care Act was passed during our time in medical school, and all of us have been abundantly warned about how much the healthcare field is changing.

Dr. Gawande, however, did not seem worried.

“[Health care] has always been changing and it just continues to change,” he said. “[You just have to] understand that you are incomplete. We can’t hold all the knowledge. We can’t know everything. Knowing that you are going to be incomplete means that you have to learn how to sometimes lead a team to get to the result. Sometimes you’re going to have to learn to be a follower too. Those are very new skills in medicine.”

It seems that the only sure thing my peers and I are going to face is an evolving definition of what being a doctor means. Gone are the days when we could just set bones in exchange for some bartered goods; now, doctors need to be able to communicate, lead and manage teams.

“The key question is how are you a problem solver,” Dr. Gawande said. “If you approach it with an eye towards what problems you’re willing to try and solve, it won’t matter if you’re doing it through writing or policy, it will just be what you do.” 

Credit Mimi Konitzer, UNC medical student.
Dr. Gawande with graduating medical students and UNC School of Medicine Dean William Roper.

Nancy Wang is WUNC's very first Digital Intern. Nancy will graduate in May 2014 from UNC's School of Medicine. Nancy is headed to Stanford to do her residency in June. She will specialize in urology. Nancy is a skilled writer and is passionate about medical/science journalism. She contributes to The Charlotte Observer and North Carolina Health News among other outlets.
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