Ezekiel J. Emanuel

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Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


The author, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, says his book title “is a terrible question” (p. 1), because “it is not possible to select the best health care system overall.” However, he continues, “it is possible and reasonable to make judgments about better and worse systems” (p. 351), such as considering “which country has the best consumer choice,…the most innovative health care system,…or best addresses the needs of chronically ill patients” (p. 7). And, that’s what he does.

Emanuel and his research partners compare eleven, high-income countries: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, France, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and China. They examine eight content areas: history; coverage; financing; payment; the delivery of care; prescription drug regulation; human resources; and future challenges. These content areas serve as the subject headings for the chapters covering each country. In the penultimate chapter, “Who’s the Best?,” Emanuel assesses and judges each content area across countries. (Spoiler alert: the United States does not fare well.) The concluding chapter is built around “six lessons for improving the US health care system” (p. 385), followed by a coda where Emanuel considers how his findings relate to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The future of healthcare in the US has long been a subject of debate, with how to pay for it overshadowing other aspects of the topic. In publishing this work, the author, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, makes clear: “This book is about [the] transformation in the delivery of care in the United States” needed to ensure that “all Americans receive consistently higher-quality and lower-cost care.” (p. 15)   Paying for health care is not ignored, and indeed how health care payment methods figure in health care delivery is taken into account.  

Emanuel builds the book around 12 particular transformational practices as developed and applied in the several different health care organizations he studied. They included “small physician offices and large multispecialty group practices, accountable care organizations, large managed-care organizations, and even for-profit companies.” He admits to finding these organizations in “a careful, if somewhat haphazard, way” through a combination of serendipitous visits to some of these organizations, attendance at presentations showcasing some of them, and personal recommendations received. (p. 15) Emanuel identifies these 12 transformational practices through “carefully observing and ascribing significance when various groups and organizations in many different geographic locations, are independently reporting similar things.” (p. 16)  

The 12 transformational practices are covered across three chapters in the middle of the book. The first describes the practices that involve the way physician offices are structured and operate (e.g., scheduling patients, measuring physician performance, standardizing care, coordinating care), the second describes the practices that affect provider interactions with patients (e.g., shared decision making, site of service considerations), and the third, the practices that expand the scope of care beyond traditional boundaries (e.g., behavioral health, palliative care). Emanuel provides considerable detail on what these transformational practices entail and on the results they produce. These chapters are preceded by a separate chapter on recent changes in health care stimulating transformations, and a chapter on essential elements required for transformation: catalyzing crisis; leadership; culture, governance, and physician engagement; data; physician management alignment; and financial risk.

Emanuel recognizes that: “No organization can institute all 12 transformational practices all at once. No organization has the management capacity to do that.” (p. 197) Thus, he devotes a chapter on how organizations can adopt the transformational practices that are best suited to them. He aggregates the practices into three tiers and ranks them by prioritization. He carves out a separate chapter on “virtual medicine”—a collection of technologies and methods that enable a range of patient care activities (e.g., diagnosing, treating, monitoring) between different locations. Emanuel covers virtual medicine separately because his view is counter to the conventional wisdom espoused by “the medical techno-utopians,” as he calls them (p. 166) He allows that it can augment health care organization performance but itself is not a transformational practice because “healthcare is fundamentally social.” (p. 175) So as not to leave patients wondering how they could benefit from these practices, he devotes another chapter for them on how to find a doctor.

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