'There is nothing higher value to society than improving the way we are born'

An interview with Dr Neel Shah MD, MPP, Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School 


Hello Dr Shah, what an absolute pleasure it is for me to have the opportunity to interview you for my blog. Thank you so much for your time!   I first became aware of your work via social media, and I was instantly intrigued by your interests, and approach to maternity care. The article below drew my attention (click on image).


For those who don’t know you, could you tell me a little more about yourself, your background, and your current position?

Sure! I wear a few professional hats, but first I am an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, which means I get to care for patients at critical life moments that range from surgery to primary care to childbirth. I’m also a scientist that focuses on designing, testing, and spreading health systems innovations that can measurably improve patient care.

 What made you choose the field of obstetrics and gynaecology? 

The clinical breadth was compelling—because we provide primary care we need to consider how patients are accessing the healthcare system; because we perform surgery, we need to consider how we deploy expensive technologies equitably. But most of all, I just loved delivering babies. Even when you are exhausted and it’s the middle of the night, there is no existential crisis when you are assisting a birth. It’s awesome every time. Never gets old.

 What do you think are the main barriers to improving maternity care and outcomes in the USA?

It is not knowledge. There is a tremendous gap between what we know and what we actually do. Closing this gap feels imminently possible to me. Improving care requires science and measurement and value propositions. But it also requires effective advocacy—building coalitions with aligned interests and establishing consensus.


I understand as well as working was a clinical doctor, you are the founder and executive director of www.CostsOfCare.org.  Can you tell us a little bit about this organisation, and why you set it up? 

My profession provides the most expensive services that any patient (or society) will spend money on in their lifetimes, but at the point of service we rarely know what anything costs. In medical school this drove me crazy. It also occurred to me that although nobody goes to medical school to treat the GGP (Gross Domestic Product - healthcare in the U.S. is nearly 18%GDP which means about 1 in 5 dollars is spent of healthcare), my colleagues often had important insights into the opportunities to make care more affordable. I formed Costs of Care six years ago to ensure that these insights percolate into the public discourse.

It is obvious you are passionate about making childbirth safer, and less expensive, and you are undertaking research in this area. What does the research entail, and why do you think this is important?

Most of health services research is about diagnosing problems – we detect variation in the quality of care but fall short of doing anything about it. Instead, intervention is left to administrators, policymakers, and other “implementers.” By contrast, my research (based at a place called Ariadne Labs in Boston) is predicated on the idea that we have a role to play in intervention too – in designing solutions that have potential for scale, and then fielding, monitoring, evaluating, and many cases spreading these solutions far and wide.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the iatrogenic damage caused by unnecessary interventions in childbirth, and the potential consequences. You have been recognised for your work New York Timesin this area, can you elaborate?

Media attention is helpful because ultimately, women have to be the driving force behind changes and improvements to our system. There are two ways that we inadvertently harm patients. The first is by doing too little – there is a broad and intuitive understanding of this. The second way is by doing too much – this has been much more challenging to explain. I agree with you that there is increasing awareness and awareness is a necessary first step. The next step, the hard work in front of all of us, is to then do something about it.

I was thrilled to see that you are listed amongst the 40 smartest people in health care - WOW! What an accolade! How did you feel about that?

Superlatives are always great! You have to be suspicious of any list that aims to plausibly put me next to Barack Obama, but flattering nonetheless. Hopefully this type of attention will help elevate the visibility of the issues we are aiming to fix in maternal health.

If you had 3 wishes granted which you feel would improve outcomes for childbearing women and their babies, what would they be?

There is nothing higher value to society than improving the way we are born. And there is a lot to improve. In the United States right now, 80% of government spending on healthcare goes to the last month of life. With a fraction of that investment, we could do a lot to ensure women and babies are getting better care.

 Lastly….who are your inspirations, and why?

I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by people who inspire me. My dad taught me to be curious. My mom taught me to be resilient. My brother taught me to take the road less traveled.

Professionally, I work with one of the people I admire most - Atul Gawande. He’s inspiring because he is a tremendously gifted writer, researcher, and surgeon, but there is more to it than that. He is also one of the most generous mentors and leaders I have worked with, and has this unflappable sense of purpose and focus on doing work that will have impact.

Dr Shah, I am forever grateful to you for highlighting and taking action on matters that affect us all, wherever we live, or are born. And also, for connecting with me when I invited you to, and for responding to me so generously. I hope to meet you one day!

Dr Neel Shah can be found on Twitter @Neel_Shah