Healthcare Disinformation: A Case Study

Healthcare Disinformation: A Case Study

Healthcare Disinformation: A Case Study


Ezra Klein links to some interesting polling today that shows a (slim) plurality saying Obama’s health care reform proposals are a “bad idea,” but a strong majority supporting the actual content of the bill when “when the interviewer read an accurate, neutrally phrased description of the main features of the plan.”

The reason for the difference, of course, is the tremendous amount of lies, distortions and misinformation being thrown up by opponents of reform, the most extreme of which would be funny if they weren’t so macabre: the government is going kill off the elderly! They’ll mandate you give up your organs when you turn 67! You’ll have to pay for gay married couples’ abortions!

I recently got to see first-hand how this happens. A few weeks ago I was on Al Jazeera English debating health care reform with a conservative named Josh Trevino. Josh was a nice enough guy, genuine and polite, if extremely conservative. We went back and forth about the degree to which the current system is broken, whether healthcare is a right, and why it is that the US spends so much more per capita on healthcare than any other industrialized nation. When I noted that this year the US will spends more than 17% of GDP on healthcare, Josh shot back with a pretty amazing statistic. He said that, sure we spend a lot on healthcare, but 5.6% of GDP, or a third of all healthcare spending, is spent on pharmaceutical research. That’s way more than any other country he said, and in fact, our research dollars find the drugs the rest of the world uses. If you take away all that high-minded spending on research, then US healthcare costs are totally in line with the rest of the world.

At the time I heard this I was surprised I’d never encountered the stat before. It certainly didn’t sound right: one out of every twenty dollars in the US economy is spent on drug research? So I tweeted Josh and asked for a citation. To his great credit, Josh went looking and realized he’d made an error. Actually, biomedical research accounts for 5.6% of all healthcare spending. That means it’s less than 1% of GDP. Josh was off by a factor of six.

Now, Josh made the error in good faith and he had the integrity to fess up and post a correction on his blog. And we were talking on Al Jazeera which, ahem, doesn’t exactly have a wide domestic audience. But it goes to show just how easy it is for misinformation, particularly about a technical and complicated subject like healthcare, to get out to the public. Presumably I could just go on TV and start saying that Republicans want to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 85 or that health care premiums will go up 30-fold in the next year, and however many readers there at conservative blogs that call me out for my falsehoods, it will be a tiny fraction of the TV audience that saw me utter it in the first place.

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