The Amazonian Fiction of American Health Care Journalism

by
  • Chow, Harrison, MD
| Sep 29, 2013

Editors Note:

This piece by Dr. Harrison Chow about the state of journalism related to health care issues should be viewed as written, with a bit of irony and tongue in cheek. There is certainly some serious scientific and health care reporting in the popular press; however, all too often clichés and oversimplification may be found.

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Congratulations on purchasing The Washington Post, one of the most venerable (but financially failing) newspapers in America. Though the Post is one of the crown jewels of journalism, I still wonder what led you to purchase this newspaper. Perhaps, if you are like me, you can barely read a popular press newspaper anymore, due to the apparent disconnect between reality and what journalists report about in the world. As I see it, modern journalists (including those at The Washington Post) no longer report “news” most of the time, but instead give stories an editorial slant to improve sales/readership and hope nobody notices. Well Mr. Bezos, you and I noticed.

As a physician-anesthesiologist I understand the frustrations you probably experience. I stopped reading newspapers because I was tired of physicians being editorially demonized as tax cheats and evil capitalists (with no facts to back it up). Since you have been accused of the same I’m sure that sounds familiar. In all fairness, your newspaper recently has softened its stance on my profession: as more physicians fall in line with Obamacare, we seem to have been upgraded ever so slightly. I guess membership as a potential government worker has its privileges, so that counts as journalistic progress, yes?

But I am hoping for more progress. You bought your newspaper from one of those “old money” families that seems to own all the major newspapers in America. It must have been hard for them to sell to you, Mr. Bezos coming from “new money.” In the end, with their newspaper bleeding money, their trust funds shrinking, they held their noses and took some of your spare pocket change. And so bravo Mr. Bezos, you may finally produce a newspaper you might want to read again!

The biggest problem with your newspaper in its current state – if I may be so bold – is that its journalistic heart comes from a place of simplistic, mass news production. I can barely recognize what I read on so-called health care issues that The Washington Post reports about – covering superficial, cartoon-like caricatures of the real issues, rather than truly insightful, well-researched stories that explore the true complexities and trade-offs of the American health care system.

For example one of your columnists continues to write about the sickness of the American health care system. Apparently, we spend too much money on health care in America, and we get sick too much because of it. Is it really fair (or accurate) to compare health care prices in the America to a third-world nation like Chile? Is it fair to compare the same prices to the heavily subsidized French system? What do your journalists get paid Mr. Bezos? Now compare that to Chile and even France. You just have to ask the right questions.

Are poorer health care outcomes in America compared to France caused by a faulty health care system or the American lifestyle? After decades of practicing in the relatively healthy Bay Area, I have yet to see many of my patients live the eat-fresh-food-and-walk-miles lifestyle that most people in Europe and Asia do. Is our high rate of obesity, substance abuse and coronary artery disease the fault of our health care system or our culture? How many times and in how many ways can an American physician ask their patients to eat fresh foods, live right and exercise? These are the harder questions about American health care, ones that your newspaper has yet to explore.

Mr. Bezos you may want to consider getting some new journalists for a different perspective. Frequently, the typical journalist is an English or Political Science graduate, who may secretly aspire to write the next great American novel or hot Hollywood script…or worst yet, become a political TV pundit. Most importantly however, they avoided math and science classes in favor of “soft” sciences such as literature. How can a journalist write on health care or the tech industry (even articles about Amazon!), without even such basic education?

Your newspaper sends out its poet-journalists to write an article about health care, a field they have no education for, populated by strange people they may have always avoided on campus (science majors and pre-meds), full of diverse patients they have never met or lived with. When they sit down to write, the article about health care ends up reading like a Hollywood script. Unfortunately many people eat up the superficial journalism, but I know you can offer better.

Mr. Bezos you should consider hiring a different breed of journalists and editors for your newspaper: people with real experience in their fields. For example, people who took biology and calculus in college, and who worked in the industry might be a little better prepared to report on health care issues. You hire MIT computer science doctorates to create Amazon software, why wouldn’t you hire real physicians or nurses to write about health care?

I write this letter in hopes that I can safely pick up your newspaper one day and not be accused of being an evil, tax-cheating capitalist – otherwise known as an American physician – by your editorial staff. I trust you will make the right journalistic decisions Mr. Bezos. You come not from the privilege of inheritance, but from an admirable and successful climb through a world-transforming tech industry. Whatever you are selling, people are buying. Frankly, I believe you will be a breath of fresh Amazon air in the journalism world.

Just one final suggestion, Mr. Bezos: when you see some of your tech buddies you might want to mention that the newspapers in New York, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles are losing money and are for sale too. 

Hoping to buy a copy of your newspaper soon,

Harrison Chow, MD

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You can read about Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post and the rising influence of the technology industry here (http://gigaom.com/2013/08/06/a-new-babylon-and-the-rise-of-the-tech-tycoon/)

Dr. Chow is a frequent contributor to CSA Online First. Currently he is in private practice and is the incoming Chair for the Department of Anesthesia at Good Samaritan Hospital, San Jose. He also holds an adjunct community faculty position at Stanford School of Medicine and has a masters degree in Health Services Research in addition to his medical degree from Stanford. 

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