[Note to the reader: Anything that is in italics and square brackets (such as this note) is addressed to you, personally. Yes, you. Try it on, see if it fits.]

Healthcare has, right now, the greatest opportunity we have seen in our lifetimes to make a big change, to rebuild itself in a hundred ways to become better for everyone, and cheaper—to get cheaper by getting better. We’re not talking “bending the cost curve,” cutting a few points off the inflation chart. We’re not talking a little cheaper, a little less per capita, a few percentage points off the cut of GDP that healthcare sucks up. We’re talking way cheaper. Half the cost. You know, like in normal countries.

We’re not talking a little better, skipping a few unnecessary tests, cutting the percentage of surgical infections a few points. No. Don’t even think about it. We’re talking way better. Save the children, help the people who should know better, nobody dies before their time, no unnecessary suffering. Seriously.

I don’t know how high you want to aim, but personally, I think we should aim at least as high as the cutting-edge programs and facilities that are already out there, in the system as it exists today, cutting real healthcare expenses of real people, even “frequent fliers,” by 10, 20, even 30 percent, while making them healthier, much healthier. At least. To me, that’s a wimpy goal, just doing as well as some other people are already doing. Because these programs are just getting off the ground. They’re in the first few iterations. The stretch goal, the goal we can take seriously, is to cut real costs by 50 percent, by making people healthier. There is at least that much potential out there.

All the Ways the System Doesn’t Work

You want a little convincing? Here’s an easy little exercise: You know how the system actually works. [Note: Yes, you do. You’ve been around the block, right?] Pull up an empty notes page on the laptop, iPad, Blackberry, iPhone, whatever, and just start writing a list of all the frustrations you can think of, the thousand and one ways that the system does not drive toward the best health at the least cost for the people it serves—the missed handoffs, the wrong person/wrong drug mistakes, the lack of engagement with the patient’s life, all that. [Note: My guess? You can come up with a better and longer list than I can. Every person I talk to who actually works in health care has buckets of this stuff for me, every time I talk to them.]

Now do a little imagination exercise: Go down that list, stop at each item, and imagine some way in which the system eliminated it. Imagine that there was some systemic change that made it nearly impossible to give the wrong person the wrong drug, some change that meant that everybody got good health coaching, nobody ever got an operation that actually won’t help them, whatever is the inverse of each frustration on the list. Imagine what each of those changes would mean to the effectiveness and cost of healthcare.

Now imagine that somebody, somewhere, has done just that. Somebody is solving that problem, in ways that can be duplicated where you are. Because that is what I am seeing happen all across healthcare, and it’s a breathtaking story.

A Word about Systems

Do you know how many people died in car crashes in the United States in 2010? 32,000. That’s the lowest number since 1949. That’s impressive, but wait: It’s far more impressive than it sounds at first, because people in the United States drove about 10 times as many vehicle miles in 2010 as they did in 1949. In other words, if you drove a car or truck in 2010, you were 10 times more likely to live through each mile you drove than your father or grandfather was 60 years ago.

Why? Are we better drivers? Nah. Seatbelts, airbags, tougher DUI laws, breathalyzers, graduated licensing for teenagers, anti-lock braking systems, better highway designs, crash barriers, rumble strips, median barriers, steel-belted radial tires that don’t blow out, crumple zones, better bumpers…system tweaks that work, that make it 10 times as hard for even a terrible driver to kill himself or you.

It’s the system, not the individuals. We have only started on the thinnest little wedge of that kind of thinking about healthcare. That kind of thinking will take us way beyond “evidence-based medicine” to what is coming to be called “evidence-based health.” Evidence-based medicine does everything necessary to stabilize diabetic shock patients, gets their blood sugar under control, gives them the right prescriptions and sends them home. Evidence-based health goes home with them, if necessary, does whatever it takes to find out why they were in shock in the first place, what it takes to make sure that they fill the prescriptions, eat better, get good advice and don’t end up back in the ER in a month.

The Reform Is Not the Change

The federal healthcare reform law is a catalyst, and enabler, and an accelerator of the change we are going through. It is not the change itself, and is not even the cause of it, because the change is driven by much larger economic and demographic factors, especially by the crushing cost of healthcare. If the reform law were to go away, the change would not go away.

Here’s why the change is actually happening: As all these factors have come together, everybody in the business has come to believe that their usual way of doing business is crumbling under them. Doctors, hospitals, home health agencies, insurers, employers—everyone is desperate to find a new footing. And no one has found a certain footing yet.

Eight Methods for Screwing This Up

So this is, as the sportscasters say, our game to lose. It’s our change to screw up. And we can screw it up, big time. In case you are interested in helping that happen, here are eight ways to go about it:

Pretending it’s not there. Denial. A few tweaks. Business as usual. Same-old. Flavor of the week. Hey, it’s not my problem. I can squeak through to retirement anyway. [Note: Hello.]

Pretending it’s there and we know exactly what it is. We know its address and its measurements, the forms to fill out and the boxes to tick off. It’s all execution. Trust me, I’ve done this before. [Note: Actually, you haven’t. Nobody has.]

Fending off risk. Going for the safe choice. Pulling up the drawbridge. Hunkering down. We can’t afford to extend ourselves in this budget cycle. If we try that, it’ll just piss off the doctors. Better wait until this whole thing settles out. [Note: Let us know how that works out for you. From here, it looks like the waters are rising really fast.]

Grabbing an answer. Downloading a package. Not recognizing the edge of panic in your voice when you say reassuringly, “This is what works. This is the solution.” [Note: When the problem is not simple or static, the solution is not unitary.]

Mistaking it for an opportunity for empire. Building ACOs as regional monopolies to push up our compensation and grab market share. [Note: Consider this. How would your answer change if the question was not “How do we grow the enterprise and make our careers safer?” but instead was truly (truly now—be brutally honest, at least with yourself) “How do we help the people we serve better? How do we ease the suffering? How can we do that for more people? Cheaper? Earlier?”]

Making it a turf war. Grabbing territory. Knocking out the other guy.

Pretending it’s not a turf war, and losing it. Standing by while the other guy eviscerates your hold on the market. [Note: Of course people are going to treat it like a turf war. When everyone’s livelihood is threatened and their value is challenged, that’s what they do. That doesn’t mean you have to. In some games, the only way to win is to not play.]

Gaming the system. Figuring the angles. Making “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for us?” the only questions worth asking. [Note: Here’s the invitation: Play a bigger game. The author Harriet Rubin said a marvelous thing. She said, “Freedom is a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.”]

Consider This

“Since death alone is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what shall I do?” Yes, I’m quoting somebody. Never mind who. No, don’t write it down. Don’t Facebook it, Tweet it, stick it in Evernote, e-mail it to someone. In fact, don’t even think about it. Don’t think it through, generate options, prioritize. Stop. Just sit with it, just for this one moment: “Since death alone is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what shall I do?”

Whoever you are, however you have defined yourself so far, you have your hands on some portion of this great rambling chaotic sacred Grand Guignol parade we call healthcare. You have some influence. You can nudge it, poke and prod it, re-shape it, help it grow, make new connections, try new skills. Healthcare is where we bring our suffering, and our tricks to defeat suffering.

We can do this. It is as if the sky has opened up, a break in the pattern; there is an urgency, a swiftness to events, a tide, a moment, a momentum. Let’s roll.

First published in the May 19, 2011 Hospitals and Health Networks Daily, from the American Hospital Association.