It’s Time We Stop Comparing Health Care to Manufacturing

From ancient times, doctors have appreciated that, for all their similarities, no two patients are exactly alike. This understanding is what made physicians act like, and earn society’s respect as, professionals.

The commercialization of health care has brought in managers from other industries and other branches of academia, and their rise to power has been predicated on their ability to treat patients and doctors not as individuals, but as small cogs in the new health care industry.

There is no doubt that healthcare today is an industry, but I disagree with the notion that it can be closely compared with manufacturing.

In manufacturing, every aspect of production is built around standardized processes and standardized raw materials. But in health care, the “raw materials”, people with illnesses and risk factors we doctors seek to mitigate, are all different. And the processes often involve judgement calls and compromises between different objectives when patients have more than one disease.

Compare this to two types of carpentry:

Some carpenters build houses on empty plots of land, according to detailed architectural drawings, using standard sized lumber, creating homes that are identical, square and uniform. Novice carpenters learn relatively quickly how to build such homes, because the manufacturing process is consistent and predictable from one brand new home to the next.

Healthcare is more like old-house restoration than manufacturing. Put another way, real patients are more like old houses than new tract homes.

I have recently had reason to watch a master carpenter and a master painter turn a 1790 house and barn from a neglected near-dilapidated state into an inviting and comfortable home. Almost everything these two craftsmen did was improvised. Every flaw or asymmetry they tackled inevitably lead to another one that could not have been anticipated, let alone described with enough detail in architectural drawings or engineering diagrams for someone without decades of experience to tackle. Every decision these men made almost automatically and with little fanfare was a judgement call or an impromptu recreation of some antique detail; the carpenter chose lines to work from so that the house seemed straighter to the eye than if he had followed his level, and the painter filled gaps in the antique moldings with joint compound in a way that made the house seem tidy and whole but still showing its age.

When restoring a 200 year old house, there are no perfect squares or true plumb lines. The walls are never even and the floors are never level. But that doesn’t make such a house less livable, or less beautiful. It adds to its value. Manufacturing principles don’t apply when you set out to restore an old house, and the same holds true in holistic primary health care. Putting new drywall over a wavy plaster and lath wall is quicker than preparing the original surface for fresh paint, but the result breathes life and history into spaces that are now ready to live on with renewed purpose and dignity.

In medicine, whether it is doing plastic surgery, treating aging patients with three or four chronic medical conditions or counseling a patient facing life-changing circumstances, the manufacturing model can only cover the most rudimentary basics. It is the skill and experience of the practitioner in balancing all the variable manifestations of disease in real people that makes their treatment a source of healing.

Even the most predictable patient care processes, like taking out somebody’s appendix, don’t quite lend themselves to the manufacturing analogy. In medicine, the first step is not how to begin to remove the appendix; it is making the decision whether to do it in the first place. That isn’t always a straightforward, scientific decision, even with today’s imaging tests. It sometimes comes down to a judgement call here, too.

2 Responses to “It’s Time We Stop Comparing Health Care to Manufacturing”


  1. 2 vanslix October 27, 2015 at 7:48 am

    It’s the old adage, a carpenter doesn’t get paid to hammer a nail. They get paid to know where to put the nail. Seems to fit here.


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