This collection of essays by surgeon-writer Atul Gawande (author of Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science --see annotation) is organized into three parts (Diligence, Doing Right, and Ingenuity) and includes an introduction, an afterword entitled "Suggestions for becoming a positive deviant," and reference notes. Each part is comprised of three to five essays, which illustrate, as Gawande explains in the introduction, facets of improving medical care - hence the title of the collection: Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance. In typical Gawande style, even the introduction contains tales of patients - a woman with pneumonia who would have fared far worse had the senior resident not paid close and particular attention to her well-being, and a surgical case delayed by an overcrowded operating room schedule. Such tales are interwoven with the exposition of themes and the detailing of the medical and historical contexts of the topic at hand.

The essays, though loosely grouped around the improvement theme, can easily be read as individual, isolated works. The concerns range widely both geographically (we travel to India and Iraq as well as roam across the United States) and topically. For instance, we learn about efforts to eradicate polio in rural south India and the dedicated people who devise and implement the program. Another essay, far flung from the plight of paralyzed children, is "The doctors of the death chamber," which explores the ethical, moral and practical aspects of potential physician involvement in the American system of capital punishment (from formulating an intravenous cocktail ‘guaranteed' to induce death to the actual administration of such drugs and pronouncement of death).

In sum, the topics of the eleven essays are: hand washing, eradicating polio, war casualty treatments, chaperones during physical examinations, medical malpractice, physician income, physicians and capital punishment, aggressive versus overly-aggressive medical treatment, the medicalization of birth, centers of excellence for cystic fibrosis treatment, and medical care in India. The afterword comprises five suggestions Gawande offers to medical students to transform themselves into physicians who make a difference, and by including this lecture in the book, what the reader can do to lead a worthy life.


Many of these essays have previously been published in various forms in medical journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as in The New Yorker, and hence any Gawande fan should realize that a feeling of déjà vu is to be expected in reading the book. Nonetheless, the collection serves its purpose well: to house the second installment of ringingly clear prose and compelling medical stories from a remarkable thinker and writer.



Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



Page Count