Donald M. Berwick, md, mpp president and ceo
institute for healthcare improvement
the commonwealth fund
lessons for the future of health carelesso n
s fo r
e fu t
e o f
r eISBN 1-884533-00-0
lessons for the future of health care
Donald M. Berwick, md, mpp president and ceo
institute for healthcare improvement
the commonwealth fund
new york, new york
On December 9, 1999, the nearly 3,000 individuals who attended the 11th Annual National
Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care heard
an extraordinary address by Dr. Donald M. Berwick, the
founder, president, and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare
Improvement, the forum’s sponsor. Entitled Escape Fire,
Dr. Berwick’s speech took its audience back to the year
1949, when a wildfire broke out on a Montana hillside,
taking the lives of 13 young men and changing the way
firefighting was managed in the United States. After
retelling this harrowing tale, Dr. Berwick applied the
lessons learned from this catastrophe to the health care
system—a system that, he believes, is on the verge of its
One of the three men who survived the Montana fire
did so through an ingenious solution and a leap of faith
—by making an escape fire. Dr. Berwick suggests that
the current state of health care demands as extreme and
dramatic an approach. To make his case, he describes the
failings of the health care delivery system as they were
revealed in his wife’s treatment for a serious illness. Only
Escape Fire is an edited version of the Plenary Address delivered
at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 11th Annual National Forum
on Quality Improvement in Health Care,
in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 9, 1999.
Copyright © 2002 Donald M. Berwick. All rights reserved.
Published in 2002 by The Commonwealth Fund,
One East 75th Street, New York, New York 10021-2692.
Book Design: Landesberg Design Associates, Pittsburgh
Photography : Imagebank /Photodisk (cover), Paul B. Batalden (page 7),
USDA Forest Service (page 8), Eric Carlson (pages 14–15),
Donald M. Berwick (page 36), Steve Starr for Corbis/SABA (pages 48–49)
Printing: Broudy Printing Inc., Pittsburgh
The site of the Mann Gulch fire, which is described in this book, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Because many regard it as sacred ground, it is actively protected and managed by the Forest Service as a cultural landscape.
Ultimately, Dr. Berwick’s brighter future for health
care requires the courage to acknowledge the shortcomings
of our current system and the will to transform it. We
hope that his speech will serve as a beacon, guiding the
health care system toward a brighter future.
Stephen C. Schoenbaum, md
Senior Vice President, The Commonwealth Fund
1 Davis K., Schoen C., and Schoenbaum S. “A 2020 Vision for American
Health Care,” Archives of Internal Medicine, (160)22: 3357–62, 2000.
2The World Health Report 2000—Health Systems: Improving Performance,
World Health Organization, 2000.
by abandoning many of the traditional tools of health care
delivery, only by opening up the system to the patients it
serves and instituting a standard of excellence, he says,
will the health care system be transformed.
The Commonwealth Fund is pleased to publish
Escape Fire in its entirety. We share its vision of a health
care system that is accessible to all at all times, designed
from the patient’s perspective, and grounded in science.
This vision is consonant with the aims of The Common-
wealth Fund, as set forth in “A 2020 Vision for American
Health Care,” and it illuminates the path for our
Program on Health Care Quality Improvement.1
Despite enormous expenditures and sophisticated
technologies, America’s health care system has been rated
37th in the world.2 We hope that Escape Fire will stimulate
all who read it to work to change this. For the general
public, this means addressing the need to provide access
to care for everyone at all times, demanding safer and
better care, and being willing to support the process of
improvement. For those in health care delivery, it means
abandoning the rhetoric that we provide the best care in
the world and using our vast power and resources to
redesign the system. For those who license or accredit or
regulate the system, it means informing the public about
health care standards and raising the bar on performance.
These are the flowers of Mann Gulch. And these are the markers of death.
Twenty miles north of Helena, Montana, the Missouri River flowing north cuts into the eastern
slope of the Rocky Mountains on the first leg of its great,
semicircular, 2,500-mile journey to meet the Mississippi.
Lewis and Clark passed through this spectacular formation
on July 19, 1805, and named it “Gates of the Mountains.”
Two miles downriver from the Gates, a small, two-mile-
long canyon runs down to the Missouri from the north-
east. This is Mann Gulch.
It is the site of a tragedy: the Mann Gulch fire. More
than 50 years ago, on August 5, 1949, 13 young men—
12 smokejumpers and one fireguard with the U.S. Forest
Service—lost their lives here in a fire that did not behave
as they expected it to. Although the disaster, the first one
in which smokejumpers died, was headline news at the
time, the story fell into relative obscurity until a book
appeared. Called Young Men and Fire, it was written by
Norman MacLean, a Shakespeare scholar and the author
of A River Runs Through It. MacLean, who had fought
forest fires as a young man, became obsessed with the
Mann Gulch story, and spent two decades researching it.
site of tragedy The smokejumpers’
last desperate moments
are shown in this
map, which uses letters
to mark the points
at which each was
overcome by the fire.
The first reconnaissance team headed down the south
side of the gulch. The foreman, Wag Dodge, became wor-
ried that the group could get trapped on that side. He
ordered them to come back and cross with the rest of the
men to the north side of the gulch, opposite the fire, and
head down the hill, so that the river, an escape route,
would be at their backs as they fought the fire.
The north side of the gulch was grassland, covered
in bunchgrass 30 inches tall, with almost no trees. It was
unfamiliar terrain to these firefighters, who had been
trained in the forests around Missoula.
Dodge was the first to spot the impending disaster—
the fire had jumped the gulch from the south side to the
north. It had ignited the grass only 200 yards ahead of
the lead smokejumpers, blocking their route to the river.
No one had seen the potential for this flanking action,
since the downhill view was obstructed by a series of low
ridges, and they had no detailed maps.
Now a race began. Dodge knew that the grassfire
would cut off the route to the river, and would head
swiftly up the north slope toward the firefighters. He
ordered the group to reverse course immediately, and
head back up the slope toward the ridge crest, hoping to
get over it before the fire did.
The north slope of Mann Gulch is steep—a 76 percent
slope on the average. Photos don’t capture the reality. You
His book was published in 1992, two years after his death
at age 87.
Many of you have probably read Young Men and Fire.
For those who haven’t, let me briefly tell the story.
On the afternoon of August 4, 1949, a lightning storm
started a small fire near the top of the southeast ridge of
Mann Gulch—Meriwether Ridge, a slope forested with
Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. The fire was spotted the
next day; by 2:30 p.m., a C-47 transport plane had flown
out of Missoula, Montana, carrying 16 smokejumpers.
One got sick and didn’t jump. The rest—15 men between
17 and 33 years old—parachuted to the head of the gulch
at 4:10 p.m. Their radio didn’t make it. Its chute failed to
open, and it crashed. They were joined on the ground
by a fireguard, who had spotted the fire. Otherwise, the
smokejumpers were isolated from the outside world.
The smokejumpers were a new organization, barely
nine years old in 1949. Building in part on military
experience from World War II, they were reinventing the
approach to forest fire containment—aggressive, highly
tactical, and coordinated. To them, the Mann Gulch fire,
covering 60 acres at the time of the jump, appeared rou-
tine. It was what they called a “ten o’clock fire,” meaning
that they would have it beaten by ten o’clock in the
morning of the day after they jumped.
They were wrong.
right past the answer. The fire raged past Wag Dodge and
overtook the crew. Only three made it to the top of the
ridge, and one of the three was so badly burned that he
died a few hours later. Of the 16 men who had fought the
fire, three lived: Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, who
made it over the crest, and Wag Dodge, who survived
nearly unharmed in his escape fire.
have to go there to understand. It is hard even to walk up
such a slope, but these young men were trying to run up
it. Add air 100 degrees at the start and superheated by the
rushing fire, add the poor visibility from smoke and air-
borne debris, add the weight of the packs and tools that
these men were taught never to drop, and add their
inexperience with the pace and heat of grassfires—
far hotter and moving a lot faster than fires in forests.
At 5:45 p.m., when the crew turned around, the fire was
traveling toward them at 120 feet per minute, or 1.4 miles
an hour. Ten minutes later, at 5:55 p.m., it was traveling
at 610 feet per minute—seven miles an hour.
Wag Dodge knew they would lose the race to the top.
With the fire barely 200 yards behind him, he did a strange
and marvelous thing. He invented a solution. On the spot.
His crew must have thought he had gone crazy as he took
some matches out of his pocket, bent down, lit a match,
and set fire to the grass directly in front of him. The new
fire spread quickly uphill ahead of him, and he stepped
into the middle of the newly burnt area. He called to his
crew to join him as he lay down in the middle of the burnt
ground. Dodge had invented what is now called an “escape
fire,” and soon after Mann Gulch it became a standard
part of the training of all Forest Service firefighters.
But, on August 5, 1949, no one followed Wag Dodge.
They ignored him, or they didn’t hear him, and they ran
learning from disaster A group of students
from The Wharton School
at the University of
Pennsylvania learn vital
lessons in teamwork,
improvisation from the
Mann Gulch tragedy.
When I first read Young Men and Fire, the story gripped me. I didn’t understand why until I
read a paper by Professor Karl E. Weick, of the University
of Michigan. Weick is a student of organizations, espe-
cially organizations under stress, and even more especially
organizations that are able to function well under trying
conditions, the so-called high-reliability organizations, like
aircraft carriers and the smokejumpers at their best. His
paper is called,“The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organi-
zations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.” I want to review some
of Weick’s main points here, and then I will find my way—
though you probably think I can’t—back to health care.
Weick asks two questions about the Mann Gulch
tragedy: Why did the smokejumpers’ organization unravel?
And, how can such organizations be made more resilient?
Weick regards the group of Mann Gulch smoke-
jumpers as an organization, and he thinks that one of the
key roles of organizations is what he calls “sensemaking.”
He has written a fine book called Sensemaking in Organi-
zations. Sensemaking is the process through which the
fluid, multilayered world is given order, within which
For the Mann Gulch smokejumpers, what appeared
to be a small, manageable fire quickly turned into some-
thing unknown, and much more dangerous. Weick calls
this sudden loss of meaning a “cosmology episode.” The
experience is fundamental and terrifying—the group,
the roles, the interrelationships, the tools, the orderliness
that the sensemaking organization had provided collapse,
and people are left alone, unable to communicate with
each other. They panic.
Weick supplies a “recipe” for the collapse of sense-
Thrust people into unfamiliar roles; leave some
key roles unfilled; make the task more ambiguous;
discredit the role system; and make all of these
changes in a context in which small things can
combine into something monstrous.
Now, maybe my route back to health care is becoming
a little bit clearer.
Is health care unraveling? Are we in a cosmology
In a recent survey of 42 medical group practices
about morale among physicians and office staff, only 15
percent of the respondents rated their work environ-
ment as “good” or “excellent.” Medicare and Medicaid
managed care rolls are dropping monthly. We have tens
people can orient themselves, find purpose, and take
effective action. Weick is a postmodern thinker. He believes
that there is little or no preexisting sense of organization
in the world—that is, no order that comes before the
definition of order. Organizations don’t discover sense,
they create it.
Weick tells the story of a reconnaissance group of
soldiers lost in the Alps on a training mission. It was
winter, they had no maps, and they seemed hopelessly
lost. They were preparing to die, when one soldier found
a map crushed down at the bottom of his pack. With the
map in hand, they regained their courage, bivouacked
for the night, and proceeded out of the mountains the
next day to rescue. Only when they were recuperating in
the main camp did someone notice that the map they
had been using wasn’t a map of the Alps at all; it was a
map of the Pyrenees. Weick uses this story to point out
that sensemaking is an act of its own, valuable in itself,
and independent of any notion of reality. “This story
raises the remarkable idea,” he says, “that, when you are
lost, any map will do.”
In groups of interdependent people, organizations
create sense out of possible chaos. Organizations unravel
when sensemaking collapses, when they can no longer
supply meaning, when they cling to interpretations that
no longer work.
hospitalizations for a total of more than 60 inpatient days in
three institutions, while she gradually experienced increas-
ing pain, lost the ability to walk, and became essentially
bedridden. For most of that time, nobody could tell us
what exactly was happening or what her prognosis was.
I can report some better news now, because Ann has clearly
begun to improve. She can now walk long distances with
a cane, and she is beginning to get back to her work, and
she and I think she is going to be all right, though it will
take a long time.
My dilemma is this: Our ordeal has been enormously
painful and intensely private, and it is by no means over
yet. To use it for any public purpose, even to speak about
it, risks crossing a boundary of propriety and confiden-
tiality that ought not to be crossed. And yet, this has
been the formative experience for me overall in the past
year—the experience of the decade—and it resonates
so thoroughly with the mission of improving health care
that not to learn from it also seems wrong.
I asked Ann for permission to speak about her illness,
and she agreed. She and I both hope that some good can
come of it.
Let me first say that this painful summer and fall have
left me more impressed than I have ever been with the good
will, kindness, generosity, commitment, and dignity of
the people who work in health care—almost all of them.
of millions of uninsured Americans, significant medica-
tion errors in seven out of every 100 inpatients, tenfold
or more variation in population-based rates of impor-
tant surgical procedures, 30 percent overuse of advanced
antibiotics, excessive waits throughout our system of care,
50 percent or more underuse of effective and inexpensive
medications for heart attacks and immunization for the
elderly, and declining service ratings from patients and
their families. In 1998, the American Customer Satis-
faction Index rated Americans’ satisfaction with hospitals
at 70 percent, just below the U.S. Postal Service (71%) and
just above the Internal Revenue Service (69%). Racial gaps
in health status remain enormous; a black male born in
Baltimore today will, on the average, live eight years less
than an average white male. All this happens with per
capita health care costs 30 to 40 percent higher in the
United States than in the next most expensive nation.
But, is the health care system unraveling? Isn’t that
going a bit too far?
I face a personal dilemma here. This has been a tough
year for my family, and especially for my wife, Ann, who
last spring began developing symptoms of a rare and
serious autoimmune spinal cord problem. In early March,
Ann competed in a 28-kilometer cross-country ski race
in Alaska. Two months later, she couldn’t walk across our
bedroom. From April through September, Ann had six
concerned; now, I am radicalized. If what happened to
Ann could happen in our best institutions, I wonder
more than ever before what the average must be like.
Above all, we needed safety, and yet Ann was unsafe.
I have read the work of the physician Lucian Leape docu-
menting medication errors, but now I have seen them
firsthand, at the sharp end, sitting by Ann’s bedside for
week after week of acute care. The errors were not rare;
they were the norm. During one admission, the neu-
rologist told us in the morning, “By no means should
you be getting anticholinergic agents,” and a medication
with profound anticholinergic side effects was given that
afternoon. The attending neurologist in another admis-
sion told us by phone that a crucial and potentially toxic
drug should be started immediately. He said, “Time is of
the essence.” That was on Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m.
The first dose was given 60 hours later—Saturday night
at 10:00 p.m. Nothing I could do, nothing I did, nothing
I could think of made any difference. It nearly drove me
mad. Colace was discontinued by a physician’s order on
Day 1, and was nonetheless brought by the nurse every
single evening throughout a 14-day admission. Ann was
supposed to receive five intravenous doses of a very toxic
chemotherapy agent, but dose #3 was labeled as “dose
#2.” For half a day, no record could be found that dose #2
had ever been given, even though I had watched it drip
Day after day and night after night, Ann, our children,
and I have been deeply touched by acts of consideration,
empathy, and technical expertise that these good people—
nurses, doctors, technicians, housekeepers, dieticians,
volunteers, and aides of all sorts—have brought to her
bedside. The kindness crosses all boundaries. I asked Ann
what she regards as the most impressive moments of
help in her inpatient experience, and she mentions, first,
a housekeeper who every evening would come into her
room and, while cleaning, talk about her children and
ours—a common humanity. Ann also remembers the
young infectious disease fellow who, in the darkest of
our hours, sat by Ann’s bed and said what we were feel-
ing: “Not knowing is the worst thing of all.” Until then,
no one had quite labeled this deep source of suffering.
For these incessant kindnesses, we are deeply grate-
ful. We were fortunate, indeed, to have access to care in
several of the finest hospitals in our nation.
Which makes it hard to tell the other side of the story,
too. Put very, very simply: The people work well, by and
large, but the system often does not. Every hour of our
care reminded me, and alerted Ann, about the enor-
mous, costly, and painful gaps between what we got in
our days of need, and what we needed. The experience
did not actually surprise me, but it did shock me. Put in
other terms, as a friend of mine said: Before this, I was
so many settings that, short of a graph, no rational inter-
pretation was possible. As a result, physicians often reached
erroneous conclusions, such as assuming that Ann had
improved after a specific treatment when, in fact, she had
improved before it, or not at all. The experience of patient-
hood, or patient-spousehood, as the case may be, was often
one of trying to get the attention of decision-makers to
correct their impressions or their assumptions. Sociolog-
ically, this proved very tough, as we felt time and again
our migration to the edge of the label “difficult patient.”
We needed respect for our privacy, personal attention,
and timely care. Often we got it. But often we didn’t. On
at least three occasions, Ann waited alone for over an hour,
cold and frightened on a gurney in the waiting area out-
side an MRI unit in a sub-basement in the middle of the
night. A nurse insisted that Ann swallow her pills while
she watched, “because elderly patients sometime drop
their medicines.” Ann’s bedtime was 10:00 p.m., but her
sleeping medication was often brought at 8:00 p.m., to
accommodate changes in nursing shifts. By Day 30 of
hospitalization, Ann knew exactly which sleeping pills
would work and which would not, and yet it was a daily
struggle to get the right ones to her, as new clinicians
insisted on trying their own approaches, ignoring Ann’s
expertise. One place gave a sleeping pill at 3:00 a.m., and
then routinely woke Ann at 4:00 a.m. to take her blood
in myself. I tell you from my personal observation: No
day passed—not one—without a medication error. Most
weren’t serious, but they scared us.
We needed consistent, reliable information, based,
we would have hoped, on the best science available.
Instead, we often heard a cacophony of meaningless and
sometimes contradictory conclusions. Ann received
Cytoxan, which causes hair loss and low white blood cell
count. When would these occur? we asked. The answers
varied by a factor of five. Drugs tried and proven futile
in one admission would be recommended in the next as
if they were fresh ideas. A spinal tap was done for a test
for Lyme disease, but the doctor collected too little fluid
for the test, and the tap had to be repeated. During a cru-
cial phase of diagnosis, one doctor told us to hope that
the diagnosis would be of a certain disease, because that
disease has a benign course. That same evening, another
doctor told us to hope for the opposite, because that same
disease is relentless—sometimes fatal. Complex, serial
information on blood counts, temperature, functional
status, and weight—the information on the basis of which
risky and expensive decisions were relying—was collected
in disorganized, narrative formats, embedded in nursing
notes and daily forms. As far as I know, the only person
who ever drew a graph of Ann’s fevers or white blood cell
counts was me, and the data were so complex and crossed
involved. And yet, to my knowledge, only three of these
individuals made any effort to follow Ann’s course after
any particular discharge, and these three are actively
managing Ann’s outpatient care at this time. The rest
have, I suspect, no way at all to know how she is faring,
or whether their diagnoses and prognoses were, after all,
correct. Continuity, when it occurred, was based on acts
of near heroism. Ann’s primary neurologist travels fre-
quently for speaking engagements. When he was away
during crucial times, he phoned Ann every day, whether
from Amsterdam, London, Geneva, or San Francisco.
One after another, caregivers told us of their own
distress. The occupational therapist apologized for cut-
ting back Ann’s treatment, explaining that 17 OTs had
been laid off the week before. The doctors told us about
insurance forms and fights for needed hospital days. The
nurses complained that the transport service never came.
And the bills were astounding. They have been
covered by our insurance, for which we are immensely
grateful. But I cannot reconcile what happened with the
fees. Pharmacy charges of $30 for a single pill. Remember
the Colace that was discontinued but brought anyway?
Well, there it is: Pill by pill charges for all the days on
which the nurse opened the unneeded packet and threw
it in the garbage. Radiology charges of $155 per film for
second readings of 14 films transferred from one hospital
pressure, which never varied from normal. An emergency
room visit for a diagnostic spinal tap that should have
taken two hours evolved into an 11-hour ordeal of con-
In all of our hospitalizations, there have been only
two instances when someone actively sought our feed-
back on the care system itself. Only two people ever asked
us to make suggestions about how their system could be
We needed continuity. Ann’s story was extremely
complex, and evolved over many weeks. And yet we often
felt that the only real memories in the system were ours.
Times of transition of responsibility, such as the first of
the month, were especially trying. On one “first of the
month,” the new senior attending physician walked into
Ann’s room, cheerfully introduced himself, and asked,
“So how long have you had MS?” Ann doesn’t have MS.
Over and over and over again Ann had to tell her story,
longer and more complex as time passed. By the fifth or
tenth or fifteenth iteration, any plausibility to the com-
mon explanation—“fresh minds, two heads are better
than one”—gave way to our doubts that any of these
caring people ever talked to each other at all. “Discharge”
from a hospital really meant it. I would estimate that 50
different doctors and three times as many nurses became
closely involved with Ann’s care in hospitals—intensely
They see it every day, and even if their defensive routines
no longer permit them to say what they see, they do see it:
errors, delays, nonsensical variation, lack of communi-
cation, misinformation, the care environment not at all
a place of healing.
to another. MRI scans over and over again for $1,700,
$2,000, $2,200 per procedure. Ann’s care has been billed
at perhaps $150,000 so far, at a minimum, and the bare
fact is that, of all that enormous investment, a remarkably
small percentage—half at best, probably much less—
stood any chance at all of helping her. The rest has been
pure waste. Even while simpler needs, for a question
answered, information explained, a word of encourage-
ment, or just good and nourishing food, have gone unmet.
Not all of these flaws in care were equally present in
all of the hospitals. Some were much better than others.
In fact, if we could combine the best of care in each, we
would have a system far closer to ideal. But some of these
defects existed everywhere, and this was in some of the
best hospitals in America.
I am deeply, deeply grateful for the people, and I
respect the institutions a great deal. But we have so much
left to do. We are causing harm, and we need to stop it.
I think the fire has jumped the gulch. The blaze is on
our side. As I waited helplessly for Ann to get a medicine
when “time was of the essence,” I even felt the fire licking
at my heels.
The people know this. Not just the people in the
beds, but the people doing the work, too. The doctors
and nurses and technicians and managers and pharma-
cists and all the rest know— they must know—the truth.
“Why do organizations unravel?” asks Karl Weick.“Because they no longer make sense of the world,”
he answers. I love medicine. I love the purpose of our
work. But we are unraveling, I think. Sense is collapsing.
And yet, this does not need to happen. Sensemaking
is within our reach. Karl Weick asks a second question,
with much more embedded optimism: “How can organi-
zations be made more resilient?”
He answers that resilience has four sources in orga-
nizations, equipping them to, in his words, “forestall
deterioration” of their sensemaking function.
First, there is “improvisation,” the ability to invent
when old formulas fail. The young men at Mann Gulch
had been trained to never, under any circumstances,
drop their tools. One of their tools was a Pulaski, a com-
bination axe and pick that is very useful in fighting forest
fires. It’s not useful to carry it up a 76 percent slope when
a grassfire is racing toward you at 610 feet per minute.
And yet, the reconstructed journeys of the victims of the
fire show that several carried their Pulaskis a good way
up the hill as they raced for their lives. Wag Dodge, in the
underdeveloped,” Weick maintains, “then they are on
their own. And fear often swamps their resourcefulness.
If, however, a role system collapses among people where
trust, honesty, and self-respect are more fully developed,
then new options…are created.”
I think that this idea—the loss of sensemaking—is
a powerful vocabulary for interpreting the health care
crisis of our time. At least it captures the most disturbing
aspects of what Ann and I experienced this year. If I’m
right, then it might lead us to new ideas that are every bit
as tough to embrace as Wag Dodge’s escape fire, and every
bit as promising. I want to imagine health care’s escape
fire, and I want to be bold.
I have decided to divide the question into two parts.
It seems to me that the health care system’s capacity to
preserve sensemaking in a time of crisis requires change
at two levels. I call them preconditions and designs.
Preconditions are a set of shared assumptions that
don’t tell us what future we need to build, but that give
us a chance of staying in order long enough to tackle that
issue. They make sense possible.
Designs are the basic ideas behind the escape fire itself.
These are the new ways of thinking about what we do. The
new sense. The scheme we create together to organize a world
that threatens otherwise to become chaotic and overtake us.
midst of ultimate crisis, improvised the escape fire, though
no one followed him.
Second, there are what Weick calls “virtual role
systems.” These systems refer to the ability of individuals
to carry, as it were, a social system inside their heads—
to assume structures even when they are not externally
apparent. If the smokejumper crew had still seen Wag
Dodge as their leader when he invented his escape fire,
maybe they would have followed him. They didn’t: The
smoke and fear and noise and shock had not only dis-
rupted the smokejumper system as a formal entity, it had
also disrupted its representation in the mind of each
individual. The organization could have been preserved
if individual minds had held on to it, but they did not.
The system fragmented, and the roles disappeared.
Third, says Weick, resilience within an organization
is maintained by “the attitude of wisdom.” He quotes
John Meacham, who writes, “Ignorance and knowledge
grow together.…To be wise is not to know particular
facts but to know without excessive confidence or exces-
sive cautiousness.…[In changing times] organizations
most need…curiosity, openness, and complex sensing.”
Fourth and finally, Weick says, resilience requires
“respectful interaction.”“If a role system collapses among
people for whom trust, honesty, and self-respect are
need to go by stressing the current system. You can’t
possibly run fast enough up a 76 percent slope.
Let me show you the difference. At the Institute for
Healthcare Improvement, we have two bathrooms. Each
has a sign on the door that can be set in two positions:
“vacant” or “occupied.” You flip the sign as you enter and
leave. Or, you don’t. In 71 observations, I obtained the
following data. The sign was correct 43 out of 71 times,
or 61 percent of the time. It was wrong 39 percent of the
time. The most common error, 30 percent of the time,
was that the sign said “occupied” when the room was
actually vacant. This error causes moderate to severe dis-
comfort in timid staff members who do not check the
door handle. The other error, 10 percent of the time, was
that the sign said “vacant” when the room was actually
occupied. This error can cause injury if a staff member
tries to pull the door and it is locked, or embarrassment
if they trust the sign and the occupant has forgotten to
lock the door.
The sign system functions poorly. In fact, if you
simply guessed that the room was vacant, you would
have been right 44 times out of 71, or 62 percent of the
time—more often than the sign.
I decided to fix the system by emphasizing it. Here
is my reminder sign. It never lasted more than an hour
I can see five preconditions that give us a chance at
The first is the toughest: We need to face reality.
This is very, very hard. Why did it take the Mann Gulch
crew so long to realize they were in trouble? The soundest
explanation is not that the threat was too small to see; it is
that it was too big. Some problems are too overwhelming
to name. I now think that that is where we have come in
health care; I have been radicalized. Our challenge is not
to develop more sensitive ways to detect our risks, our
errors, our flaws, our variation, our indignities, our frag-
mentation, our delays, our waste, our insults to the people
we say we exist to serve. Our challenge is to have the cour-
age to name clearly and boldly the problems we have—
many—at the size they occupy—immense. We must find
ways to do this without either marginalizing the truth-
teller or demoralizing the good people working in these
David Lawrence, former CEO of Kaiser Permanente
Foundation Health Plan, has said it best. He said, “The
chassis is broken.” Our challenges are not marginal and
their solutions are not incremental. The sooner we get hon-
est about those facts, the sooner we can get on with the job.
The second precondition is that we drop the Pulaskis.
Our current tools can’t do the job. We can’t get where we
before someone tore it down. I tried to highlight its
importance by making a sign for the sign for the sign,
but that, too, was torn down. The experiment ended with
a surge of graffiti, which I thought lacked taste.
Such an approach will never work. On the other hand,
you and I have both been in airplanes with a lavatory sign
system that is right nearly 100 percent of the time. The
reason is that the locking system in airplane lavatories
uses a design principle called a “forcing function.” It
doesn’t allow for choice—you can’t lock the door or turn
on the light without changing the sign. And you can’t
open the door without changing the sign again.
Our health care escape fire will have the same prin-
ciples. It will not just invoke different tools, it will force
us to drop the old ones. Health care’s backpack is full of
useless assumptions so old and often repeated that they
have become wisdom from the mouth of Hippocrates
himself, and one questions them at grave risk to one’s
Precondition number three is that we “stay in
formation.” Weick refers to this as having virtual role
models. In the Mann Gulch fire, the organization dis-
appeared at the moment of crisis. It became every man
for himself. Nobody remembered that Wag Dodge was
the most experienced and the leader, or that together the
crew might learn something that separately they could
The fourth precondition is procedural: To achieve
sense, we have to talk to each other, and listen. Sensemaking
is fundamentally an enterprise of interdependency, and
the currency of interdependency is conversation. In the
noise and smoke of the fire, just at the time when our inter-
dependency is most crucial, it becomes most difficult to
communicate. This will not do. Civil, open dialogue is a
precondition for success.
The fifth, and final, precondition for success I can
see is leadership. You don’t achieve sense without having
leaders. Effective leaders in high-reliability organizations
exhibit certain skills: clearly defining tasks; demonstrat-
ing their own competence; disavowing perfection so as
to encourage openness; and engaging and building the
team. Leadership like this makes constructive, informed
interactions more likely and, at a deeper level, leaves the
sensemaking apparatus intact as the context changes.
I believe that these five preconditions—facing reality,
dropping the old tools, staying in formation, communi-
cating, and having capable leadership—set the stage for
making sense as the fire blows up. Now we have a chance.
What does the escape fire look like?
not. The men’s bodies afterward were literally strewn for
300 yards across the slope.
Successful sensemaking can’t leave anyone out. Health
care’s disintegration is not yet every man for himself, but
it is every discipline for itself, every guild for itself. As a
result, we tend to assume today that one guild’s solution
cannot be another’s. We assume that either we will pre-
serve quality or cut costs; that patients will get what they
ask for or that science will prevail; that managers will
run the show or that doctors will be in control; that the
bottom line is financial or moral.
This won’t work. No comprehensive solution is
possible if it fails to make sense to any of the key stake-
holders. At least four parts of our crew need to share in the
solution—a common answer—or the crew will fall apart.
Whatever escape fire we create has to make sense in the
world of science and professionalism, in the world of the
patient and family, in the world of the business and
finance of health care, and in the world of the good, kind
people who do the work of caring. I think the toughest
part of this may be in terms of the business and financ-
ing of care. There is a tendency to assume that financial
success—e.g., thriving organizations—and great care are
mutually exclusive. However, we will not make progress
unless and until these goals become aligned with each other.
I think that health care’s escape fire has three primary design elements. None is totally new, but together,
fully realized, they would create a care system that is as
different from today’s as a 76 percent slope is from an
escape fire. I will call these elements access, science, and
“Access” refers to the property of a system that
promises, “We are there for you.” The current system of
care embeds processes and assumptions that ration, limit,
and control access. To get help requires appointments,
permission, authorization, waiting, forms, and procedures
to which the person in need must bend their need. In the
current system, first we allocate the supply, and then we
experience the demand. We accept as inevitable that acces-
sibility at some times—weekends, nights, holidays—is of
course different from 9 to 5. Demand often feels unpre-
dictable, threatening, and even hostile, and we reply with
equal unpredictability, threat, and counter-accusations
about insatiable patients and unrealistic expectations.
that we have trouble seeing it. The health care encounter
as a face-to-face visit is a dinosaur. More exactly, it is a
form of relationship of immense and irreplaceable value
to a few of the people we seek to help, and these few have
their access severely curtailed by the use of visits to meet
the needs of many, whose needs could be better met
through other kinds of encounters.
The alternatives to visits in the escape fire are many:
self-care strongly supported and unequivocally encour-
aged; group visits of patients with like needs, with or
without professionals involved; Internet use for access to
scientific and popular information; e-mail care between
patients and clinicians; and well-managed chat rooms,
electronic and real, for patients and significant others
who face common challenges.
Payers should take careful note: Most of you still pay
only for Pulaskis. The greatest potential for reducing costs
while maintaining and improving the lot of patients is to
replace visits with better, more flexible and fine-tuned
forms of care. But almost all current payment mechanisms,
whether enforced by the market or mapped into organi-
zations by internal compensation systems, use impover-
ished definitions of productivity that actively discourage
the search for and incorporation of non-visit care.
Another form of access is access to one’s own med-
ical information; it, too, is a form of non-visit care. An
All of this changes in the escape fire. The new system
of access can be summarized in one phrase: “24/7/365.”
The access to help that we will envision is uncompromis-
ing, meeting whatever need exists, whenever and wherever
it exists, in whatever form requested.
Before the howling starts, let me remind you of one
precondition: Drop your Pulaskis. 24/7/365 is not at all
achievable with the current tools. Meeting demand this
well within current frameworks is harder than running a
marathon up a 76 percent grade. It cannot be done.
Our Pulaski in the search for access is the encounter
—the visit. Total access 24/7/365 begins to be achievable
only when we agree—scientists, professionals, patients,
payers, and the health care workforce—that the product
we choose to make is not visits. Our product is healing
relationships, and these can be fashioned in many new and
wonderful forms if we suspend the old ways of making
sense of care.
The access we need to create is access to help and
healing, and that does not always mean—in fact, I think it
rarely means—reliance on face-to-face meetings between
patients, doctors, and nurses. Tackled well, I believe that
this new framework will gradually reveal that half or more
of our encounters—maybe as many as 80 percent of
them—are neither wanted by patients nor deeply believed
in by professionals. This is an example of a problem so big
Whenever we put a block or bottleneck in the way of
knowledge transfer—whether we call it an appointment,
or permission, or even a decision by anyone other than
the person who wants to know—we add cost without
value and fail to meet need. We also put 24/7/365 even
further from our reach.
I recently visited a magnificent new hospital, which
has developed a state-of-the-art health information library
for patients. There were computer terminals everywhere,
user-friendly books, three-dimensional models, and a
full collection of instructional videotapes. I spoke to the
nurse who ran the library, and she complained that it
was vastly underutilized because they were having a hard
time getting doctors to send their patients there.
I asked, “Why not go directly to the patients and get
the doctors out of the loop?”
She said, “The doctors would never go for that.”
I wanted to say, “Come into my escape fire. In here,
we know that information is a form of care, and that
doctors’ visits and decisions are, too. And we want to make
sure that anyone who needs either gets it. Doctors are
useful for some forms of caring; information resources
like yours are useful for others.”
So, the first element of my escape fire is total access,
without compromise: 24/7/365.
employee of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement
recently had a test for a potentially serious disease. She
called the clinical office for the result, and heard the
following: “Yes, Ms. Smith…your result is right here. It
is…uh-oh…ah…Ms. Smith, I am not authorized to
give you this information. You will need to talk with the
doctor. He will be back tomorrow.” When my wife was
on Cytoxan, she and I were the only people who were
actually tracking her white blood cell count graphically,
and yet several of her nurses refused to tell us the white
count results when they became available.
The medical record properly belongs to the patient,
not to the care system. It must become an open book to
the patient, available without restriction, hesitation, or
suspicion. Diane Plamping, a public health researcher
from the U.K., offered me the following rule about access
to information: “Nothing about me without me.”
In my escape fire, we will have a new view of the
nature of information in health care. In the current model,
information is treated generally as a tool for retrospec-
tion, a record of what has happened, a stable asset that
we may or may not use to recall the past, or to defend or
prosecute a lawsuit.
Here in my escape fire, the view of information is
different. Information, we now see, is care. People want
knowledge, and the transfer of knowledge is caring, itself.
Physicians stand only to gain from this change of
perspective. They know, as I do, that the volume of sci-
entific medical literature today far outpaces the capacity
of any one doctor—any 100 doctors —to stay up-to-date.
Dr. Larry Weed—a physician and a specialist in medical
informatics—says that asking an individual doctor to
rely on his memory to store and retrieve all the facts
relevant to patient care is like asking travel agents to
memorize airline schedules. The art of the physician is to
synthesize many different sources of information; this
art should be used exactly and only when less expensive,
less creative resources will not suffice.
This issue does not begin with a commitment to
artificial intelligence or knowledge management. It begins
with a commitment to standardize excellence.
This includes a commitment to safety for patients
and for staff. By some calculations, the aviation indus-
try’s safety record is better than health care’s by a factor
of 1,000 or more. And aviation safety has improved ten-
fold in the past three decades, during a period of massive
growth in volume and technology. This has been accom-
plished through science, not through exhortation. There
are safe designs and there are unsafe designs. The issue
has very little to do with the will or capability of human
beings, who almost never intend errors to happen. It has
a lot to do with whether leaders, board members, and
The second element is science. At its best, the help
we offer is based in knowledge. When care matches
knowledge, it is most reliable. When care does not match
knowledge, we fail to help, either by omission (failing to
do what would help) or by waste (doing what cannot
help). The current world is far too tolerant of mismatches
between knowledge and action, far too permissive of
omission and waste. As a result, our care is unreliable,
our answers are inconsistent, and our practices vary with-
The escape fire looks different. I urge here that we
adopt Dr. James Reinertsen’s formulation: “All and only.”
“We will promise to deliver, reliably and without error, all
the care that will help, and only the care that will help.”
The Pulaski here may be an illogical commitment to
the autonomy of clinical decisions. Just as the hospital
with the patients’ library illogically places the doctor
between the patient and the information the patient
wants, so the system fundamentally committed to auton-
omy places the individual doctor’s mind between the
patient and the best knowledge anywhere. Doctor visits
are irreplaceable, sometimes; so is a doctor’s autonomy
to assure that the patient is well served. But, in my escape
fire, I would place a commitment to excellence—stan-
dardization to the best-known method—above clinician
autonomy as a rule for care.
information access A cardiology patient at
the University of Colorado
Health Sciences Center
reviews his electronic
medical record with Chen-
Tan Lin, md, as part
of a study of information
access and its value.
the burden it must bear so that it can deliver the care. As
a result, behaviors and systems emerge to control or limit
interactions—as if they were a form of waste—and to
regard commitment to interaction as a secondary issue in
training, resource allocation, hiring, firing, and incentive.
In the escape fire, we see it differently. Here, we
know that interaction is not the price of care; it is care,
itself. A patient with a question presents an opportunity,
not a burden. Time spent in building patients’ skills in
self-care is not a way to shift care, it is care. Access to
information is desirable not because it improves care or
supports compliance, but because it is a form of care.
University of Michigan education professor David
Cohen says that no education occurs until what he calls
“inert” assets (books, teachers, rooms, curricula, rules,
budgets, and so on) interact with each other and with
students. Education is interaction. People in educational
organizations, he says, often behave as if the inert assets
were essential and the interactions expendable. They fight
political wars over budgets, space, and personnel, and
spend little time defending and perfecting the inter-
actions among these assets through cooperation, commu-
nication, teamwork, and knowledge about students.
It is the same in health care. Care is not doctors,
nurses, hospitals, computers, books, rules, or medicines.
These are inert. Care is interaction among our assets and
managers employ the best available knowledge about safe
designs for tasks, equipment, rules, and environments
instead of relying on outmoded traditions and impover-
ished theories about motivation and “trying harder.”
A scientific system of care would guarantee that the
best-known approach is the standard approach.
The third element of the escape fire I will call
“relationships” or, perhaps, “interactions.” While the first
element, access, encourages us to consider how people
get to the help they need, and the second, science, asks us
to consider how we can assure that the best knowledge
informs action, the interactions element challenges our
current notions of the very nature of help, itself. It raises
the question of what, in the end, we are spending $1 trillion
to produce. It is about our purposes.
In Mann Gulch, the transition of purpose was stark
and total—from defeating a ten o’clock fire to saving
lives. Until that event, the smokejumpers’ training and
intent were focused almost entirely on the first task, and
very little on the second. They felt invincible. After Mann
Gulch, it became clear to all that smokejumper safety
and survival was a task on its own, and the most impor-
In the current framework, health care tends to regard
human interactions more as a toll or price than as a goal
or product. The system tends to act as if interactions were
according to his or her needs, not ours. Our measure of
successful interaction is not just an average of how we
have done in the past for “them,” but also the answer to
the inquiry, “How did I just do for you?”
Third, interactions in the escape fire begin with this
assumption: The patient is the source of all control. We
act only when the patient grants that privilege, each time.
The current system—the one ablaze—often behaves as
if control over decisions, resources, access, and informa-
tion begins in the hands of the caregivers, and is only
ceded to patients when the caregivers choose to do so.
My wife had a surgical procedure and awoke in the
recovery room asking for me. I was not permitted to join
her for almost 90 minutes, even though she repeatedly
asked that I be allowed to comfort her. Why did that staff
and that institution willfully separate a man and his wife
at a time when they could have offered support to one
another? By what right does a nurse, doctor, or manager
make a decision that violates basic principles of human
decency and caring? As a husband and as a physician, I
know that the rationale for asserting that right stands on
infirm ground. In any other setting, such an act would be
obviously wrong. In this one, it is less obvious, but it is
Control begins in the hands of the people we serve.
If we caregivers wish to take it, we must ask. If a patient
between assets and patients. To perfect care, we must
Four properties of interaction ought to be objects of
investment and continual improvement in the escape
fire. The first we have already covered: to regard infor-
mation transfer as a key form of care, and to increase the
accessibility, openness, reliability, and completeness of
information for patients and families. Generic, scientific,
and patient information should be available to them
without restriction or delay. “Nothing about me without
me” is a formula for idealized interaction just as it is for
Second, interactions should be tailored to patients’
needs. The call to arms here comes to me from a friend
named Art Berarducci, who, when he was CEO of a small
hospital, placed over the entrance a sign that read: “Every
patient is the only patient.” Each person in need brings to
us a unique set of qualities that require unique responses.
The overall list of such qualities may be familiar: comfort,
dignity, communication, privacy, involvement of loved
ones, respect for cultural and ethnic differences, need for
control and sharing in decisions, and so on. But, for each
individual, “quality of care” means balancing these various
needs at levels that only the individual patient can deter-
mine. In the escape fire, we are not finished—we have not
achieved excellence—until each individual is well served
need, when they need it. Our system will promise freedom
from the tyranny of individual visits with overburdened
professionals as the only way to find a healing relation-
ship; will promise excellence as the standard, valuing such
excellence over ill-considered autonomy; will promise
safety; and will be capable of nourishing interactions in
which information is central, quality is individually
defined, control resides with patients, and trust blooms
in an open environment.
It is a new system, and a lot of the old tools won’t
work anymore. Those who cling to their old tools and
allow our organization to disintegrate will find little sense
either in the burning present or in the challenging future.
For them, sensemaking will have failed, and the panic of
isolation will drive them up a slope that is too far and
too steep for them to make it. For the rest, the possibility
of invention and the opportunity to make sense—new
sense—will open not just routes of escape, but vistas of
achievement, that the old order could never have imagined.
denies control, then we must accept their will as a matter
of right. We are not hosts in our organizations so much as
we are guests in our patients’ lives.
Finally, the interactions we nurture should be trans-
parent. People often say that health care needs more
“accountability.” I have never quite known what that
means. But I do understand the notion of transparency,
and why it may help in the sensemaking process, and per-
haps better achieve what those who urge accountability
mean to have. In the old world, burning now, there is a
premium on secrecy. The highly desirable goal of confi-
dentiality has mutated into a monstrous system of closed
doors and locked cabinets. “Nothing about me without
me” has a necessary correlate: “I can discover what affects
me.” Health care should be confidential, but the health
care industry is not entitled to secrecy.
The burden of reporting that has arisen in a world
burning with conflict and mistrust has cast transparency
in its most negative light. And yet I cannot imagine a
future health care system in which we do not work in
daylight, study openly what we do, and offer patients any
windows they want onto the work that affects them. “No
secrets” is the new rule in my escape fire.
These are the elements of my escape fire, first draft.
I envision a system in which we promise those who depend
on us total access to the help they need, in the form they
About the Author Donald M. Berwick, md, mpp, is president, CEO, and cofounder of the
Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in Boston. IHI is a not-
for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of health
care systems through education, research, and demonstration projects,
and through fostering collaboration among health care organizations
and their leaders. Dr. Berwick is a clinical professor of pediatrics and
health care policy at Harvard Medical School. He is also a pediatri-
cian, an associate in pediatrics at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, and
a consultant in pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital.
An internationally recognized expert on health care quality
improvement, Dr. Berwick has published extensively in profes-
sional journals in the areas of health care policy, decision analysis,
technology assessment, and health care quality management.
About the Institute for Healthcare Improvement The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) is a not-for-profit
organization dedicated to improving the quality of health care in
the United States and around the world. Founded in 1991 and based
in Boston, Massachusetts, IHI develops, demonstrates, and draws
attention to the most effective strategies for improving health care
and fosters collaborations among health care organizations and
their leaders to put those strategies into place.
Employing a staff of more than 50 people and maintaining
partnerships with over 200 faculty members, IHI offers compre-
hensive products and services that facilitate demonstrable improve-
ment in health care organizations. The goal is to close the gap
between what is known to be the best care and the care that is
About The Commonwealth Fund The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation established in
1918 by Anna M. Harkness with the broad charge to enhance the
common good. The Fund carries out this mandate by supporting
efforts that help people live healthy and productive lives, and by
assisting specific groups with serious and neglected problems. The
Fund supports independent research on health and social issues
and makes grants to improve health care practice and policy.
The Fund’s two national program areas are improving health
insurance coverage and access to care and improving the quality
of health care services. The Fund is dedicated to helping people
become more informed about their health care, and improving
care for vulnerable populations such as children, elderly people,
low-income families, minority Americans, and the uninsured. An
international program in health policy is designed to stimulate
innovative policies and practices in the United States and other
industrialized countries. In its own community, New York City, the
Fund makes grants to improve health care and enhance public
spaces and services.
The Commonwealth Fund
One East 75th Street
New York, NY 10021-2692
(212) 606-3800 (t)
(212) 606-3500 (f)
Donald M. Berwick, md, mpp president and ceo
institute for healthcare improvement
the commonwealth fund
lessons for the future of health carelesso n
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