Two weeks ago, I posted an item calling out Ezekiel Emanuel, the noted oncologist, biologist, and former White House adviser, for an Op-Ed he wrote in The New York Times. I said the story, about a pressing shortage of cancer drugs, was poorly done. And I arrogantly noted that almost any journeyman science writer, with far less credentials and public esteem than Emanuel, could do a better job. "Never send a man to do a journalist's job," I wrote.
Now, it's time to do a little ground-truthing on that. A number of science writers have now written stories about the shortage of cancer drugs. Let's see what kind of job they did.
The first story I found was by Gardiner Harris, a journeyman at the New York Times. For starters, the Aug. 19 story, headlined "U.S. Scrambling to Ease Shortage of Vital Medicine," is far broader than Emanuel's. It talks about shortages of antibacterial agents, as well as cancer drugs.
Harris lays out the case nicely, he interviews patients, he talks about efforts in Congress to give the FDA more power to fight shortages, and he hits a key point head on: Why are these shortages occurring?
More than half the recent shortages have resulted because government or company inspectors found problems like microbial contamination that can be lethal on injection. Others have occurred because of capacity problems at drug plants or lack of interest because of low profits, according to the F.D.A.
One quibble: He says that "at least 180" drugs are in short supply, but doesn't attribute that. We can guess that the figure comes from the FDA, but we don't buy the Times to play guessing games. Nevertheless, Harris did a far better job than Emanuel in making the case that this is a crisis with serious consequences, and that it could have been avoided.
Over the weekend, others weighed in on the story. Victoria Colliver of the San Francisco Chronicle does a nice job, reporting that some 190 drugs are in short supply, "according to the University of Utah Drug Information Service, which tracks prescription drug shortages." (Thanks for the attribution.)
In a story last week, Liz Szabo of USA Today focuses on price-gouging by drug makers seeking to take advantage of the shortage. Others mentioned this angle, too, but she leads with it:
With the nation in the midst of a record shortage of prescription drugs — including vital medications used in everything from surgery to chemotherapy — unscrupulous marketers are stockpiling hard-to-find drugs and attempting to sell them back to hospitals at up to 50 times their normal prices, a new report says.
The report comes from Premier health care alliance, a "Charlotte-based quality improvement group," she writes.
The Colorodoan does a nice job, doing the story as a feature emphasizing local patients and hospitals, but including a good bit of national reporting.
Newser says it can tell any story in two grafs or less. It can't. Its story, cribbed from the New York Times, doesn't attribute anything, except one quote from a drug company president--and it doesn't tell us her name. "Read Less, Know More," is Newser's slogan.
My slogan: "Read Less, Know Less."
The journalists did a better job than Emanuel; I don't think there's any question about that. But only a few journalists covered this story, which should have been front-page news everywhere. When we're trying to control medical costs and save lives, we're getting a shortage of the cheap drugs, and price gouging. Lives in the balance, possibly criminal price gouging, manipulation of the market: Why wasn't that bigger news?
I suspect we have a more than adequate supply of the expensive, high-tech, brand-name drugs--costing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Indeed Emanuel says so, and we'll give him credit for that. But not too much. He says it, but doesn't attribute it.
- Paul Raeburn