Healthcare lessons from Jon Snow, the hero of 'Game of Thrones'

Game of Thrones
Addressing the threats facing healthcare will require leaders to act like Jon Snow from 'Game of Thrones' and demonstrate vision, anticipate and prepare for disruptive forces, writes Robert Pearl, former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group. (HBO)

The healthcare industry needs medical professionals who can behave more like Jon Snow, the fictional character from Game of Thrones, and act on emerging threats like out-of-control healthcare costs and ineffective care.

That’s the advice of Robert Pearl, M.D., the former CEO of The Permanente Medical Group and former president of the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, in a column for Forbes.

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Although the industry has talked for years about transformation of care delivery, Pearl writes that healthcare leaders generally have waited for someone or another entity, i.e., the government, to address it and force change.

“Addressing the threats facing healthcare will require leaders to demonstrate vision, anticipate and prepare for disruptive forces, mobilize people, engender broad collaboration and make change happen before it’s too late,” writes Pearl, a clinical professor of surgery at Stanford University and a faculty member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “But who among us will step up?”

Transformational change is only 10 to 20 years away, he says, and that may require fewer hospitals and specialists, a greater focus on primary care and preventive medicine, and expansion of telehealth.  Although it won’t be easy, Pearl says it’s necessary to save the nation’s healthcare system.

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Other healthcare experts have also called for industry leaders to reduce high costs and improve the quality of care. During a conference in the District of Columbia this summer, policy experts suggested the industry focus on programs that address patients’ social needs, such as safe housing, to keep them out of the hospital, as well as wellness programs that focus on nutrition and weight loss.  

One Illinois hospital has had success with this type of program. The University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System decided to reduce the number of “superusers”—patients who visited the emergency room and were admitted to the hospital several times a year—by providing those patients, who were primarily homeless, with furnished apartments and support services.

The organization’s $250,000 investment in the program led to a 25% drop in monthly hospital visits by that population and the annual cost of care for these patients dropped more than 40%.