Gladwell: COVID-19 should push healthcare to consider its 'weak links'

The coronavirus pandemic has shown the healthcare industry that it needs to decide whether it’s playing basketball or soccer, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell said. 

Gladwell, the opening keynote speaker at America’s Health Insurance Plans’ annual Institute & Expo, said the two sports exemplify the differences in thinking when one tackles problems using a “strong link” approach versus a “weak link” approach. 

In basketball, he said, the team is as strong as its strongest, most high-profile players. In soccer, by contrast, the team is only as strong as its weakest players. 

For healthcare organizations, that means making investments in the “weakest links”—such as harried clinicians who may need more training and low-income communities that cannot afford or access coverage—rather than the stronger links, like building out teaching hospitals and physician specializations. 

“In healthcare, this is a chance for us to turn the ship around and say we can benefit far more from making health insurance more plentiful and more affordable,” Gladwell said. 

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Gladwell emphasized that healthcare is far from the only industry to largely follow a “strong link” approach to improvement. In higher education, for example, much of the investment and funding goes to Ivy League institutions and other wealthy, top-performing universities. 

Meanwhile, the education system could see significant benefits if it invested in the “weak links” like community colleges and bringing down tuition, Gladwell said. 

It’s a similar story in national security—and that “strong link” thinking led to two of the largest security breaches in American history, Gladwell said. Both Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were relatively low-ranking people within the security apparatus, but they were able to access critical files and release them. 

“I would argue that ‘strong link’ paradigm has dominated every part of American society,” Gladwell said. “We have really put our chips down on the 'strong link' paradigm.” 

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How could a “weak link” approach have impacted the response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Gladwell argues that, for instance, widespread testing is hampered by a lack of supplies like nasal swabs. Investment in the supply chain could have mitigated that challenge, he said. 

The virus also disproportionately impacts people with certain conditions, notably diabetes. A broader focus on preventing and treating obesity could have had a large impact on how the pandemic played out, he said. 

“With this particular pandemic, I think we’re having a wake-up call,” Gladwell said.