Bitton tapped to replace Gawande in leading Ariadne Labs innovation center

Bitton will serve as the new executive director of the innovation hub, and Gawande will assume the role of chairman of the Ariadne Labs Governance Council. (Ariadne Labs)

Asaf Bitton, M.D., a Harvard University professor and Brigham and Women’s Hospital primary care physician, has been tapped to lead Boston-based innovation center Ariadne Labs to succeed Atul Gawande, M.D., who moved over to the Amazon-backed healthcare initiative Haven.

Bitton will serve as the new executive director of the innovation hub, and Gawande will assume the role of chairman of the Ariadne Labs Governance Council, according to a press release.

In July, Gawande was tapped by Amazon, JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway to lead its new healthcare initiative, which has since been named Haven. Gawande is a general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston as well as a healthcare author and speaker.

Launched in 2012, Ariadne Labs is a partnership between Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and serves as a testing ground for projects to improve the quality of healthcare around the world.

“Asaf is the ideal next leader for Ariadne Labs. He has a big heart, big ideas, and demonstrated capacity for big impact,” Gawande said in a statement. “Ariadne Labs is an engine of innovation and discovery for health systems change, and we could not be more excited to pass the keys to Asaf.”

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Ariadne Labs, which has 110 faculty and staff, takes on a wide range of projects both in the U.S. and abroad with a strong focus on checklists, similar to those used in the airline and other industries to standardize safety practices. The innovation center's BetterBirth Program, for example, uses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Safe Childbirth Checklist, a tool that supports birth attendants to consistently deliver essential childbirth practices to address the biggest killers of women and babies. Childbirth practices include handwashing and the use of clean gloves to prevent infection and monitoring women's blood pressure to prevent eclampsia.

“The reason I and so many others have been drawn to Ariadne is it offers a home for those of us who want to use the tools of academia to solve big problems in healthcare together, and we have already exceeded expectations," Bitton said in a statement. "I'm excited, optimistic and humbled by the opportunity to lead the next era of our impact.”

Ariadne Labs also has been working globally on primary care, and in a Q&A Bitton said he plans to bring those models to the U.S.

"We are going to make a bet on creating solutions to advance domestic U.S. primary care at Ariadne Labs. We’ll be working on defining the strategy in the months to come," he said.

"You have to break out of the current mental shackles of what primary care can do. If you mistakenly see it as coughs, colds and blood pressure checks, that’s what you will get. If you see it as teams powered by data and IT to deliver better care to communities, supported by better aligned financial models that encourage the development of long-term relationships, then the possibilities really emerge," Bitton said in the Q&A.

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Gawande led a national search with Brigham Health President Betsy Nabel, M.D., and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams for the next executive director.

Considered a public health expert, Bitton's research focuses on international tobacco control policy, the global burden of chronic disease and U.S. healthcare payment reform, among other things. Bitton, 41, has been the director of the Ariadne Labs Primary Health Care Program since 2014. In that role, he has been a leader of the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative, launched in 2015 at the United Nations by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and WHO with Ariadne Labs to strengthen primary health care systems worldwide. 

Bitton also has collaborated with international health leaders to build health system innovations in Estonia, China and Ghana, and is a technical leader for a global Joint Learning Network of 10 countries working to strengthen integrated healthcare service delivery.

He also served as a senior adviser to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation since 2012, developing a national demonstration project that has since expanded into Medicare's largest primary care initiative, known as Comprehensive Primary Care Plus, with 13,000 clinicians in nearly 3,000 practices serving 15 million patients.