October 7, 2009
Contact:
Anna Christopher, NPR


   

NPR NEWS EXAMINES WHAT DRIVES COST OF HEALTH CARE
IN THREE REPORTS, AIRING OCTOBER 8-13

NPR'S ALIX SPIEGEL INVESTIGATES ROLES, AND RESPONSIBILITIES
OF DOCTORS AND PATIENTS IN ESCALATING COSTS

SPIEGEL CONTRIBUTING STORY TO CHICAGO PUBLIC RADIO'S THIS AMERICAN LIFE, OCTOBER 10-11

October 7, 2009; Washington, D.C. Health care in America is incredibly expensive, taking up one out of every six dollars of domestic spending. As the debate over how the system should be redefined, and who should have access to it, rages in and out of Congress, NPR News takes a step back to investigate the complicated factors that drive escalating health care costs, and the roles of both doctors and patients. In three extensive and revealing reports airing this week and next, NPR's Alix Spiegel unravels how the current system affects the behavior of doctors and patients, and ultimately, makes our system more expensive and less effective.

Spiegel will first examine doctors' influence on cost in a special 20-minute report to air, uninterrupted, on Thursday, October 8 on NPR's afternoon newsmagazine All Things Considered. She will contribute a related companion story this weekend to This American Life from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International (for local stations and broadcast times, visit www.thislife.org). Spiegel's second and third pieces about the cost of health care air Monday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 13 on Morning Edition. All pieces will be available following their broadcast at NPR.org. Stations and broadcast times for NPR programming are available at NPR.org/stations.

Spiegel's first report, which airs on October 8, begins with a mystery. In the mid 1970's an unconventional health researcher named Jack Wennberg discovered that in the city of Lewiston, Maine, a huge number of women were having hysterectomies. He estimated that if the rate continued, 70 percent of the women in Lewiston would have a hysterectomy by the age of 70. In a nearby town, however, the rate was much lower: 25 percent. The question, of course, was why? Were the women in Lewiston sicker than the women in other areas in Maine? Or were the doctors behaving differently?

What Wennberg ultimately discovered by collecting huge amounts of healthcare data throughout the states of Maine and Vermont (where he was based) was that, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't patient sickness or preference that primarily drove decisions about treatment. But instead, it was doctor behavior. This discovery led him and others to look more closely at what drives doctor treatment decisions, and how those decisions both drive up the cost of health care and can also compromise patient health.

In Part 2, airing next week on Morning Edition, Spiegel turns to patients to examine how their transformation from passive recipients of doctor advice to active participants in their own care is increasing the cost of medical care in this country. The third report will trace the history of direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs. The more people are inundated with messages "to see if this medicine is right for you, see your doctor," the more patients advocate for certain brand medications, and increase spending on prescription medicines overall.

Spiegel's reporting augments NPR's extensive coverage of health care on-air and online. This month, NPR explored how different people use and manage with their health care in a nine-part radio and web series, "Are You Covered." NPR also offers continuous news from the world of health care at the NPR Health Blog and through "Prescriptions for Change," a special web-only series following the Obama Administration's efforts to remake health care and explaining how various proposals before Congress affect different groups of Americans.