Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Accountability, Accountable Care Organizations, and Human Mindsets

Great companies have high cultures of accountability, it comes with this culture of criticism I was talking about before, and I think our culture is strong on that.

Steve Ballmer

"I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself." 

Walter Anderson

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.

David Brin

Accountable care organizations (ACOs) are all the rage as the perfect tool to achieve our most important goal in present day American health care: decreasing per-capita cost and increasing quality at the same time. Just this week I am presenting on ACOs at a law firm conference co-sponsored by two state hospital associations and the MGMA in Minneapolis and at a hospital system board retreat in Pennsylvania. Everybody wants to know how to implement ACOs.

An essential ingredient in ACOs is accountability, and yet human beings are not always comfortable with being held accountable. The two blog posts ( and http/ I wrote on physician report cards generated a lot of comments both in favor and opposed to personal accountability. And yet we know that hospitals and physicians are going to have to change the way they utilize medical resources if we are to indeed decrease per-capita cost and increase quality. Hospitals account for 40% of the rise in health care costs. Physicians account for only 20% of total health care expenditures, but when they treat patients they control the use of hospitals, drugs, medical devices, and laboratory tests. If we are to control health care costs, hospital admissions will have to go down and physicians will have to order fewer and less expensive tests and treatments than they do today. (

Why is accountability so hard?

I cannot stop thinking about why it is so difficult for many of us to admit error and receive blunt feedback. How can we help physicians acquire the humility, courage, and existential strength needed to want to receive the kind of feedback on performance that is necessary for continuous improvement and cost control? In my mind this issue is just as important as perfecting the methods by which we measure performance and quality.

Americans have had an ambivalent and changeable attitude toward success and failure that informs the ideological battle between liberals and conservatives. Americans like success and winners. Whether failure is caused by larger socioeconomic forces or lack of effort on the part of the individual depends partly on your political philosophy. (

“‘Americans in general don’t like to talk about failure very much,’” said Professor Scott Sandage of Carnegie Mellon. In his book Forgotten Men: Failure in American Culture, Sandage describes how in America where hard work is supposed to equal success failure is blamed on some flaw in the loser’s character. Failure becomes transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure). (

While the dominant culture in America has always celebrated success and winners, some like Chris Argyris ( have noted that failure is a better teacher than success. At times in the start-up culture, failure can become an asset and entrepreneurs whose companies have failed are more attractive to venture capitalists than executives who have never failed at all. Self help books with titles like Failure: The Back Door to Success get published ( and college graduation speakers like San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom list famous, accomplished Americans who have failed: Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan, Dr. Seuss, and Henry Ford. (

But the predominant American attitude toward failure and success is to avoid talking about the former and celebrate the latter condition. When Michael Lewis wanted to title his book on the 1996 presidential election Losers, the publisher told him there is no market in America for failure. (

Recent research in social psychology has identified a fixed mindset and a growth mindset with completely different takes on failure. Carol S. Dweck, PhD, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford, describes the research behind these two worldviews in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006)

People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static and largely determined by genetics; they want to appear smart and so avoid challenging problems; effortless success is desired because it affirms one’s natural endowment and ability; they get defensive and give up easily when faced with obstacles, and they ignore useful negative feedback; these people feel threatened when others are successful and they plateau early and achieve less than their full potential.

People with growth mindsets believe intelligence can be developed which leads to a desire to learn by embracing challenges; they persist when faced with obstacles and see effort as the path to mastery; criticism and feedback is an opportunity to learn and grow, and the success of others offers lessons and inspiration. They reach higher levels of achievement than one might predict from their IQ scores.

A study of University of Hong Kong students took advantage of the fact that instruction is in English and that some entering students are not fluent in English. The investigators measured the mindset of the students who were not skilled in English and divided them into fixed and growth groups by use of a validated questionnaire. They then asked the subjects if they would take a class for students who needed to improve their English skills. The fixed mindset students were not interested in such a class; the growth mindset students were anxious to sign up for the remedial course.

Richard E. Nisbett, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, in Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count (New York: Norton, 2009) describes a Canadian experiment where Japanese and Canadian college students were studied. Canadians worked longer on a creativity test if they had succeeded on the first part of the study than if they had done badly. Japanese worked longer on a creativity test if they had failed at first than if they had succeeded.

“Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And Asians are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it. For example, Japanese schoolteachers are observed in their classrooms for at least ten years after they begin teaching.” (Nisbett)

Dweck gives many examples from business and sports to illustrate the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset in action in real life situations. For me the most compelling was the contrast between two highly successful college basketball coaches: Bobby Knight representing the fixed mindset and John Wooden representing the growth mindset. There is no doubt in my mind which approach is superior.

Nisbett’s book clearly refutes the idea that intelligence is biologically fixed (think The Bell Curve and James Watson’s statements on race and religion). He convincingly argues that culture has a lot to do with how smart we become and how much we achieve in this life.

This emerging field of social psychology with its better understanding of intelligence has developed methods to help people switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. The growth mindset would appear to be an excellent way to equip physicians with the humility, courage, and existential strength needed to want to receive report cards that would improve patient care and decrease the cost of American health care.