Ariadne Labs Will Focus on Beginning and End of Life Issues

Brigam and Women’s surgeon Atul Gawande will direct the new organization.

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Hospital photo via Shutterstock

When legalizing physician-assisted suicide was on the Massachusetts ballot this past November, it raised many a debate about the idea of “dying with dignity” and an individual’s right to control his or her death. While that particular initiative didn’t pass, end of life issues are still a topic of conversation—so much so that Brigham and Women’s hospital surgeon Atul Gawande is devoting an entire think tank to the question.

Gawande, who created the now-widely-used surgical safety checklist in 2008 and is considered one of healthcare’s most influential thinkers, will serve as the director of Ariadne Labs, a Boston organization that will be devoted to finding solutions to common problems that arise at the beginning of life (childbirth) and death. Start-up funding has come from government grants, individual donors, and the Gates Foundation. Gawande says in a WBUR report:

“We think in the course of a person’s life that you will turn to the health system for a few high-risk, high-failure health care moments, and also some of the highest-cost moments in that system,” Gawande said. It starts with childbirth and surgery — the average person has seven operations in their lifetime — all the way to the end of life.

It seems that Ariadne Labs’ tangible projects are either undetermined or under wraps for now, but the WBUR report did mention that Dr. Rachelle Bernacki, who will work with Gawande on the think tank, is at work developing a standardized set of questions that doctors will ask terminally ill patients so that their last wishes—like whether or not they want to die at home— are accurately carried out.

Gawande spoke optimistically about Ariadne’s future in the report:

“Boston is a place where, if we are not leading this, I don’t know who is,” Gawande said. He expects to work with major hospitals and medical schools to expand work that other organizations have started, “out of a belief that Boston can be the Silicon Valley of health care innovation.”

So while death is a topic that is often tiptoed around, especially in the context of advances in the medical community, we think Ariadne Labs could provide an invaluable service. Death is intensely personal and heart-wrenching, and it deserves to be treated in a way that respects that.