My Name is Atul Gawande, surgeon and now author of Better, an autobiography about my experiences becoming a surgeon and the lessons that I have learned during that journey. I attended medical school at Harvard Medical School, and currently am their Professor of Surgery. The only thing holding me back from becoming a better surgeon was figuring out what would make me one. As I am a professor now, I have one piece of advice that I not only tell aspiring surgeons, but all medical students that cross my path. Find a way to make a worthy difference.
In other words, I advise my students to find a way to become a positive deviant; someone who makes a positive impact on others.But I also want to quickly highlight the difficulties in success in medicine, especially for a surgeon. By pursuing this profession, you are subjecting yourself to immense amounts of pressure. Lives are on the line, therefore decisions and omissions are moral, expectations are high, steps are uncertain, and knowledge is vast and incomplete. We are expected to act swiftly and consistently, but at the same time, be humane, gentle, and concerned. The high stakes environment makes this job both interesting and unsettling at the same time. Hard work, dedication, passion, and determination.
From my experiences, those are a few key traits one must possess in order to survive and make a living as a medical worker.So far, I have been talking about what I have learned. Now, let us move on to a real world example where hard work, dedication, passion, and determination are all factors in play. May 1st, 2003 was the start of the outbreak of polio in India. A small boy goes on vacation with his family, and two days later, contracts polio. The moment I heard this happening, I felt so bad for him. He didn’t deserve to have this disease. This sets off an alarm in India, and on June 25, WHO, the World Health Organization, plans a campaign to immunize all susceptible children surrounding the case.
Everyone under the age of 5 in a 50,000 square mile radius was to be vaccinated. Two days later, thirty-seven thousand vaccinators, four thousand health care supervisors, two thousand vehicles, and over eighteen thousand vaccination carriers become part of the plan to vaccinate 4.2 million children. In three days. I participated in this campaign to monitor the required efficiency and determination to complete this project, and I was not disappointed.
By participating, I involved myself in a progress movement looking towards the eradication of polio in India. At the end of three days, the campaign was considered successful. 4 million out of the targeted 4.2 were successfully vaccinated. However, true success, eradicating polio in India, would take a few more years. WHO had to extend their target date for eradication from 2000, to 2002, to 2005. But it was in March of 2014 that India was officially declared polio free. Without the hard work of taking the time to plan and execute that plan, without the dedication and passion to treat polio patients, without the determination to eradicate polio, WHO would have never reached their goal of polio eradication in India.
In this case, the planners, vaccinators, and supervisors of the “mop-up” (WHO uses this term to describe a targeted campaign to immunize susceptible children surrounding a new case) are the positive deviants. What can we learn from this experience? Working together is great. But working together to make a positive impact is even better. The drive to become a positive deviant can fuel work ethic, efficiency, and kindness.
There are many traits a person, not necessarily a medical worker, needs in order to elevate their name in the community. In order to improve their name, one needs to improve their performance. In order to improve their performance, one needs to strive to be a positive deviant. And in order to become a positive deviant, one not only needs hard work, dedication, passion, and determination, but many other traits as well. And now I leave you with a small piece of advice.
Sometimes, a little change of attitude can go a long way. Thank you.