Episode #150: An Existential Threat in US Healthcare, with Don Berwick MD, President Emeritus & Senior Fellow at the IHI


This was the most challenging interview I’ve conducted and posted, in the nearly 6 years that I’ve been hosting the ‘Creating a New Healthcare’ podcast. I spent weeks listening to the audio file – trying to figure out how to understand it, what to do with it, and how to present it to you. In the end, I believe it’s important to share it and to broaden this specific dialogue.

The conversation you’ll be listening to this episode is a conversation about an article that Dr. Don Berwick published earlier this year, in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association. Its title: Salve Lucrum: The Existential Threat of Greed in US Health Care. I’ll save you the bother of looking up what ‘Salve Lucrum’ means. Here’s what chatgpt says:

“Salve Lucrum” is a Latin phrase that translates to “Hail Profit” or “Greetings Profit” in English. The phrase has its origins in ancient Rome, where it was commonly used as a greeting among merchants and traders. It expressed the hope for a successful and profitable transaction, as well as the desire for financial gain. In addition to its use in ancient Rome, “Salve Lucrum” has also been used in various other contexts throughout history, including in medieval Europe and in modern times. It remains a popular phrase among businesspeople and investors who are focused on maximizing their profits.

Per chatgpt, “It remains a popular phrase among businesspeople and investors who are focused on maximizing their profits.” Dr. Berwick’s thesis in the JAMA article, and in our conversation, is that “the immoderate pursuit of profit” has superseded the mission of patient care and public health. In the interview he states that it “has shifted the focus from people to money”, and that, “no sector of US healthcare is immune… neither drug companies, nor insurers, nor hospitals, nor investors, nor physician practices.” 

I suspect that, for many of you who are employed in one of those sectors, this topic will be incredibly uncomfortable. I know it is for me. But, I also believe it’s a serious issue that deserves broader dialogue and attention. One might argue with some of the specifics and even the underlying premise that greed is the core problem. But, there is no question that the issues Dr. Berwick points out are real and are negatively impacting the health of Americans. One example of that reality comes from President Biden’s recent state of the union address in which he chides the pharmaceutical industry for the exorbitant, unethical and unnecessary pricing of medications. President Biden shared the example of pharmaceutical companies charging over $250 for a vial of insulin that costs $10 – $15 to produce. What makes this a public health agenda is that a significant percentage of the over 30 million Americans with diabetes can’t afford their insulin. Another recent and timely example is the actions that Congress and the President are taking to curtail some of the profiteering in the insurance industry sector in regard to Medicare Advantage risk adjustments and payments. 

In this dialogue, Dr. Berwick walks us through each sector of the U.S. health industry, pointing out the perverse behaviors and implications of this “immoderate pursuit of profit”.  One important point to keep in mind. Dr. Berwick makes it abundantly clear that he is not speaking about individuals, but about the system. As he puts it, “I’m not pointing a finger at individuals at all. I’m saying you are trapped in a system which is making you act in ways you don’t want to…” Having said that, he’s also unabashedly stating that “profiteering, storing money away, getting the most you can, has become… the dominant behavior, the dominant agenda of too many organizations in the country.”  

Toward the end of the interview, we shifted the conversation from critique to action. Dr. Berwick outlines three or four actions we can take to address this issue – whether from the perspective of patient, provider, caregiver, policy maker or administrator. None of them are easy, but all are necessary.

After a few weeks of thinking about our conversation, I’m not sure that greed is the issue at all. I think a more fundamental problem is the one that Dr. Berwick has raised before and points out in this conversation. That issue being the commoditization of healthcare – having healthcare as a consumer good instead of a public good. As he states, “I have come to believe… we got this thing set up really wrong, that health and healthcare are important social goods. We all depend on it. We all need it. It’s like clean air, not like automobiles… A market for automobiles makes sense to me. A market for consumer goods makes sense to me. But not a market for clean air, and not a market for health. We’ve used market theory, profit theory, capitalist theory where it shouldn’t apply.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Dr Berwick is identifying and articulating a problem of titanic proportion – a problem that is eroding the health and financial welfare for the majority of Americans. It is, as he suggests, an existential issue that is contributing greatly to the unsustainability of our current system of healthcare. Having said that, I’m still uncertain of what we can actually do about it. What I am certain about is that there are few other individuals in the healthcare industry with greater intelligence, integrity, courage and a track record of commitment to patient care and public health than Dr. Berwick. His message comes from a set of principles that are unadulterated and unfiltered. His authority is not one of power or position, but one of profound patient-centered and public health purpose. Dr. Berwick – his career and his leadership – is an exemplar of what we need more leaders to strive toward.

I’ll wrap up this commentary with a goal that Dr. Berwick stated, and which also expresses my overarching goal in this interview and on this podcast. “My hope is that by speaking out and having others speak out, we can begin to create a sense of agency where we say, ‘we can change this and we will’…”

Until Next Time,
Wishing you Purpose and Agency
Zeev Neuwirth, MD


Brief Bio on Dr. Donald M. Berwick:

Donald M. Berwick, MD, MPP, FRCP is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), an organization that he co-founded and led as President and CEO for 18 years. An elected member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Dr. Berwick served two terms on the IOM’s governing Council, and was a member of the IOM’s Global Health Board. He also served on President Clinton’s Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Healthcare Industry. Dr. Berwick contributed greatly to the landmark 2001 IOM report – Crossing the Quality Chasm; as well as the landmark, To Err is Human report. Dr. Berwick served as vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and chair of the National Advisory Council of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. In July, 2010, President Obama appointed Dr. Berwick to the position of Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which he held until December 2011. A pediatrician by background, Dr. Berwick has served as Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Health Care Policy at the Harvard Medical School, Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health, and as a member of the staffs of Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He has co-authored over 160 scientific articles & six books. In 2005, Dr. Berwick was appointed “Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire” by Queen Elizabeth II, the highest honor awarded by the UK to non-British citizens, in recognition of his work with the British National Health Service.