Newsweek Covers Oprah’s Fiction Sales

And no, we’re not referring to her book club sales. In “Why Health Advice on ‘Oprah’ Could Make You Sick,” Newsweek takes on the lifestyle maven’s disturbing tendency to traffic untested or discredited medical therapies and theories, to provide advice that defies logic and common sense, and to offer up plain-old wackiness.

The article, provided for free online, finds that too often these 45-minute shows simplify things so much so as to distort the truth. What’s worse, celebrities with a cause–be it “natural” hormone therapy or (largely unproven) vaccine-related autism–can drown out expert voices and allow dubious cause-and-effect connections to go unchallenged.

It’s a good read and a worthy attempt to push back at the notion that televised tonic can ever hold the cure to what ails us. As the article notes:

“At some point, it would seem, people will stop looking to Oprah for this kind of guidance. This will never happen. Oprah’s audience admires her as much for her failings as her successes. In real life, she has almost nothing in common with most of her viewers. She is an unapproachable billionaire with a private jet and homes around the country who hangs out with movie stars. She is not married and has no children. But television Oprah is a different person. She somehow manages to make herself believable as a down-to-earth everywoman.”

The bottom line: In life, there is no such thing as a quick fix and no substitute for hard-headed discernment between fact and fantasy. Subscribe to Newsweek here.


NEH Choice Announced

Former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) was selected last week as the nominee for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said this:

“I am confident that with Jim as its head, the National Endowment for the Humanities will continue on its vital mission of supporting the humanities and giving the American public access to the rich resources of our culture.  Jim is a valued and dedicated public servant and I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”

Guest Book Review: Ghost Light

Sarah Orrick, guest blogger, posts the following review of “Ghost Light,” by Frank Rich.

A Memoir. 311 pp. New York: Random House, Oct. 17, 2000. $24.95. (Available online in both hardcover and paperback.)

For Washingtonians and fans of Frank Rich, Ghost Light, the New York Times op-ed columnist’s touching memoir about growing up in the nation’s capital, is a great read.

The title, a theatrical term for the single bare light that continues to shine at center stage after a performance, could well describe Frank’s lonely, stagestruck coming-of-age journey from National Theatre ticket-taker to chief drama critic for the New York Times.

The book recounts Rich’s painful childhood as the son of divorced parents at a time when intact, Ozzie-and-Harriet families were the norm. The erratic behavior of his new stepfather, who was by turns abusive and the bestower of such magical gifts as trips to see Broadway musicals, only served to heighten young Frank’s confusion.

Rich writes with great candor and humor about these ups and downs, his friends and mentors, his first girlfriend, and the passion for theater that sustained him throughout the difficult years. Those familiar with local landmarks will especially enjoy reading about the Washington institutions and neighborhoods that play a part in the story―such as Rich’s Shoes (started by Frank’s grandfather), the Somerset community in Chevy Chase, Alice Deal Junior High School, Cleveland Park, and, of course, the National Theatre, where Rich found his true inspiration and home.

Why U.S. Health Care Costs So Much

Are you afraid to admit you’re sometimes stumped when policymakers say “we need to control the cost of health care” or, “health care in the U.S. costs more than it does in any other industrialized nation,” or even why everyone says cost is the central reason for reform? I follow this stuff pretty closely but I must admit that I don’t really understand why this is the case even as I trust that it probably is the case. (I haven’t covered health care since the 1990s and I try to block it out. It was a complete circus.)

Enter Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a writer for the New Yorker, who takes us to McAllen, Texas, to explain in simple, clear, data-backed terms just how health care costs can skyrocket in one place even as they go down in another. [Below link to New Yorker Out Loud interview with the author.]

In this recent article, published for free online, Gawande lays out the whys behind the it of U.S. health care costs. Delving into Medicare data and other research, Gawande makes a strong case that higher health care costs (in the form of more tests, more surgeries, more procedures, etc.) lead to worse outcomes because of the increased risk to patients. He writes:Americans like to believe that, with most things, more is better. But research suggests that where medicine is concerned it may actually be worse. For example, Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic dominates the scene, has fantastically high levels of technological capability and quality, but its Medicare spending is in the lowest fifteen per cent of the country—$6,688 per enrollee in 2006, which is eight thousand dollars less than the figure for McAllen. Two economists working at Dartmouth, Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, found that the more money Medicare spent per person in a given state the lower that state’s quality ranking tended to be. In fact, the four states with the highest levels of spending—Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida—were near the bottom of the national rankings on the quality of patient care.

He also raises an issue that few people, least of all Washington, D.C., politicians, want to talk about: for some doctors, health care is a money-making business.

Gawande writes that “the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.”

The full article is illuminating. An interview with the author is online.

Subscribe to the New Yorker.