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No mere prescriptions

Atul Gawande wields a pen that is sharper than a surgeon's knife, admirers say, referring to his stories on the strengths and weaknesses of modern medicine published in The New Yorker, and also in the bestselling books Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science and Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance.

"I was fascinated by trying to understand the difference
in his words
'The key battle in India is taking the existing knowhow in the world and finding ways to bring it to agrarian people. We have the same problem here; but we do not recognise it. We have thousands of drugs available; but we do not use them consistently or correctly.'
Photo: Paresh Gandhi
between those who are competent at what they do, and those who are correct, positively," he says of some of the doctors discussed in his recent book.

"One of the things I found is they are not smarter than everybody else," he says of physicians he admires. "That instead they have the willingness to look at their own fallibility and the fallibility of the world around them; to find their way through it; to be able to act and do it effectively despite that."

A staff member of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and The New Yorker magazine, Gawande received his BAS from Stanford, a masters' degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford, an MD from the Harvard Medical School, and an MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health. He served as a senior health policy advisor in the Clinton presidential campaign and at the White House from 1992 to 1993.

His academic prowess notwithstanding, it is his writing that has attracted many. In 2006, he received the MacArthur 'Genius' Award for research and writing. His non-fiction has also been selected to appear in the annual Best American Essays collection twice and in the Best American Science Writing of the last six years.

Gawande calls himself a closet mystery book reader and says he has learned to craft intriguing real life medical mysteries. "I have learned a lot about my own world from scenes in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms," he adds.

In 2003, he traveled for two-and-a-half months as a surgeon to India, and worked at eight hospitals to understand how surgery worked there, from the largest hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai to the smallest ones. 'This was a part of what I was trying to understand -- how surgeons there just did it,' he told India Abroad. 'How they did that with the modicum of resources they had was a lesson in ingenuity to me. It was a kind of bedside ingenuity. I looked at the way they worked around the system when it was in chaos or failure. The way they tried to make things work.'

He hasn't given up trying to make things better either.