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Common Reading 2020: Atul Gawande

"Curiosity and What Equality Really Means"

When people speak, they aren’t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.

—Atul Gawande


Answer to the Picture Riddle Challenge: The Graduation Duck!

Author: Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande – Chairman of the Board | Haven Healthcare 

Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, is a globally recognized surgeon, writer, and public health leader. He has been a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. He has also been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1988, along with writing four New York Times best-sellers. 

Introduction: Jan Reichard-Brown

Jan Reichard-Brown, Ph.D. – Susquehanna University 

Dr. Jan Reichard-Brown is an Associate Professor of Biology and the Director of Health Care Studies at Susquehanna University. She enjoys helping and mentoring students in and out of the classroom, especially first-year students when she has the opportunity to teach Perspectives. For all her students she hopes she can make at least a small difference in their lives. You can catch her outside of the classroom at Dog Days with some of her very own pooches. 

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Are all lives equal? Or does a life devalue when a person does bad things?

2. Would you treat a prisoner? Is there a crime someone could commit where you would no longer be willing to treat them?

3. How is equality in medical care tied to fundamental human equality?

Classroom Activities

1. In groups, make a list of fundamental human rights that should never be revoked vs. privileges that are sacrificed when someone commits a crime.

2. Have students write about a situation they might encounter in their future career that will test their dedication to treating people equally (like the surgeon was threatened) and what they think the appropriate response is. Stress that sometimes, as the female surgeon did, the correct response might be to walk away.


The following essay published in The New Yorker magazine is the transcript of a commencement address delivered to the 2018 UCLA medical school class. You may be asking yourself, “Why would someone just starting their college career be interested in a speech given to graduating medical students?”  That would be a good question and a demonstration of your own sense of curiosity.  The journey upon which you are about to embark will provide you with many new and valuable experiences. You will experience a sense of curiosity and wonder in many different areas such as the arts, philosophy, science, technology, or any direction your interests take you. However, this essay asks you to extend your curiosity in a new way. 

The practice of medicine insists that physicians see all patients as equal. In theory this can be easily accomplished, but as the essay illustrates, in practice when treating actual living, breathing, talking, patients, it becomes difficult. How would you feel about treating that patient? The author urges you to take your sense of curiosity in a totally different direction. He wants you to use your curiosity to explore another person’s individual humanity, allowing you to understand why they are the person you meet today.  As you read the selection ask yourself: Do I listen to more than just people’s words? As I meet new people at Susquehanna and later on my GO experience, how will I use my curiosity and become open to understanding their personal humanity? 

—Jan Reichard-Browne

Additional Resources

Harvard Medical School Global Academy
Setting the Stage: Why Health Care Needs a Culture of Respect

As Don Berwick stated, “We are guests in our patients’ lives.” As such, we must act accordingly.  This is demonstrated by listening to our patients, asking for their opinion, and recognizing the importance of incorporating their personal values and priorities into treatment decisions.


The Price of Life

Michael D. Bayles