Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, July 7, 2011 8:46 pm

“It is the Industrial Revolution — in reverse”

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:46 pm

Murca. Hail. yeah:

In December, the Los Angeles Times reported — very briefly — that from 2007 to 2008, life expectancy in the United States declined by 0.1 year. It should have been the lead story of every newspaper in the country with the largest possible headlines (“LESS LIFE“). Did 9/11 reduce life expectancy this much? Of course not. Did World War II? Not in a visible way — American life expectancy rose during World War II. I can’t think any event in the last 100 years that made such a difference to Americans. The decline is even more newsworthy when you realize: 1. It is the continuation of trends. The yearly increase in life expectancy has been dropping for about the last 40 years. 2. Americans spend far more on health care than any other country. Meaning vast resources have been available to translate new discoveries into practice. 3. Americans spend far more on health research than any other country and should be the first to benefit from new discoveries.

Maybe I’m biased (because my research is health-related) but I think this is the biggest event of our time. It is the Industrial Revolution in reverse — progress grinding to a halt. For no obvious reason, just as the Industrial Revolution had no obvious reason. Health researchers have been given billions of dollars to improve our health, the whole system has been given tens of billions of dollars, and the result is … nothing. Worse than nothing.

No journalist, with the exception of Gary Taubes, seems the least bit aware of this. It is a difficult story to cover, true. But several journalists, such as health writers for The New Yorker (Atul Gawande, Michael Specter, and Jerome Groopman) are perfectly capable of covering it. They haven’t. With a few exceptions, they write about progress (e.g., Peter Provonost’s checklists). It is like only reporting instances when Dirk Nowitzki missed a free throw. Each instance is true but the big picture they create — he misses all free throws — is profoundly false.

I’m not sure whether I agree with Seth Roberts’s explanation for why journalism is working (or failing to work) this way; I think, for one thing, that he’s overlooking significant flaws within the current practice of professional journalism in the U.S. aside from anything having to do with health care that also just happen to affect health-care coverage. But in any event, the larger point is what I want to emphasize here.

I also want to raise a question, one Roberts, at least in this post, does not: Is the same thing happening in the many other countries with more cost-effective health-care systems? I don’t have time right this minute to try to find out, but I’ll see what I can find out when I do get some time.

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