From social security to sex, AARP’s Bill Novelli is working to make aging safe—and cool—for the baby-boom generation and the rest of us.

By Dennis Drabelle

We’re sitting around a table in downtown Washington, D.C., staring at a triangular pod that looks a bit like the head of a golf-course sprinkler. The item, in fact, is a speakerphone, and we’re in the office of William D. Novelli C’63 ASC’64, CEO of AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). We’ve gathered for a conference call to Dr. Donald Berwick, who runs the 100,000 K Lives Campaign out of Boston. I’m here because Novelli is allowing me to shadow him this morning. Joining us is Cheryl Matheis, AARP’s director of health strategy.

Novelli’s assistant places the call, and after some endearing fumbles with the pod’s controls, Novelli makes contact with Berwick, who explains what the campaign is about. Under the aegis of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a group of physicians drew up a list of six things hospitals could do to reduce the number of patient deaths. All procedural reforms, the six lifesavers include putting together rapid-response teams to combat cardiac arrest and making sure that when patients are transferred from hospital to hospital—or even within the same facility— their medications don’t get screwed up. To sell the idea, the physicians estimated a saving of 100,000 lives if 2,000 hospitals were to adopt the reforms, and gave themselves a year and a half to make this happen. If that first number remains speculative, the second was too timid: 2,400 hospitals have signed up since the campaign’s kickoff last December. “We believe this translates into half the hospital beds in the U.S.,” says Berwick. Characterizing the response so far as “a stunning outpouring of energy,” he expresses the hope that AARP, with its vast membership—“Thirty-five-point-seven million exactly, but who’s counting?” Novelli interjects—can help.

Novelli is bullish, throwing out the possibilities of an AARP endorsement and a lobbying campaign for legislation to make the new rules mandatory, should it come to that. But he wants to dig deeper. As a self-styled veteran of “campaigns to change behavior” (one of his previous jobs was the presidency of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids) [“Taking on the Tobacco Giants,” January/February 1999], he looks for ways to involve AARP’s sizable corps of volunteers. The six reforms strike him as not very average-Joe-friendly. “Are there some things that consumers would feel comfortable asking hospitals for?” he wants to know. “Patients generally don’t order their doctors around, but a generation ago the National High Blood Pressure Education Program got people asking for their blood pressure to be taken, and that’s become a routine thing now.”

Seeing the point, Berwick promises that he and his staff will work on formulating demands that patients can realistically be expected to make. And since he frequently travels to Washington on business, he and Novelli agree to meet face-to-face as soon as their schedules permit.

“This is a hell of a feat,” Novelli comments after hanging up. He tells Matheis to put together a “creative team” to break down Berwick’s six reforms into components that consumers can get a handle on. It’s been a fruitful call. Two organizations with a natural fit have taken the first steps toward forming an alliance. Novelli has lent his expertise in grass-roots activism to a campaign that might gain from operating at a less abstract level. And the talking pod has performed flawlessly.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

Gray is Good
By Dennis Drabelle

Photography by Paul Fetters

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