Tech Meets Health Care, Sometimes Shakily

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Katie Thomas, who covers health and is based in Chicago, discussed the tech she’s using.

As a health care reporter, what are your most important tech tools for doing your work?

I mostly work from home near Chicago, and I do a lot of interviews by phone. I’ve recently started taping more of my calls (with permission) because a handful of online transcription services have become fast and relatively cheap.

To record the calls, I use the Olympus TP-8 Telephone Pick-Up Microphone. The microphone plugs into my Sony digital recorder, which is not flashy but gets the job done. I’ve tried a handful of apps that promise to record calls from my iPhone, but I’ve found them unwieldy and unreliable, sometimes dropping calls unexpectedly, which is a reporter’s worst nightmare on deadline.

I often collaborate with other reporters who are thousands of miles away. To do this, Google Docs is invaluable — we can write stories together in real time, analyze data using Google Sheets and upload documents into a shared drive. Like many reporters, I also communicate securely with sources with tools like Protonmail or the Signal messaging app.

For health care stories, a few websites are essential. The federal government’s Open Payments site tracks what drug and medical device companies pay to doctors. Users can look up an individual doctor or company on the website directly, or download data sets for a deeper dive. The investigative nonprofit ProPublica also maintains several health care databases, such as Prescriber Checkup, which uses Medicare data to show how doctors are prescribing certain drugs. The website Sqoop allows me to track developments in federal court cases.

I use LinkedIn to find current and former employees of the companies I’m writing about, and Facebook and Instagram are helpful to see how health companies are promoting their products, sometimes in questionable ways. I take screenshots when I’m worried a company will change its site or remove social posts after I begin asking questions. For that, I use Fireshot, or I archive the page with the Wayback Machine.

How has technology upended health care?

The tech industry is intensely interested in breaking into health care, but several high-profile attempts to disrupt this highly regulated industry have stumbled. (See: Theranos.)

As someone with a deeper understanding of health insurance, have you come up with a tech setup to make your health care less frustrating?

My family and I are healthy, and thankfully our health insurance is pretty simple.

But here’s one thing I do: Whenever we are prescribed a drug, especially a generic, I check the cost of the drug on a site called GoodRx before I fill the prescription using my insurance. That’s because, as I’ve written with Charles Ornstein of ProPublica, it’s sometimes cheaper to pay cash for drugs than to use insurance. GoodRx shows the cash price of drugs at nearby pharmacies.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done: When my daughter was 2, she needed drops for an ear infection. She was so cranky while we waited in line that I didn’t check to see if using my insurance was the best deal. I later learned I would have saved money if I had paid cash.

Amazon is getting into the drug business with its acquisition of Pillpack. Is this a game changer?

Amazon has upended everything from books to groceries, the thinking goes, so why not prescription drugs? The health care industry has worried for years about whether the retail behemoth was coming for it, and those fears appeared to have been confirmed last summer when Amazon acquired the online pharmacy site.

Pillpack is still a relatively small player in the pharmacy world. It offers free shipping for medications — users are responsible only for their co-payments or other out-of-pocket costs. To expand significantly, it will have to work with entrenched players, like pharmacy-benefit managers, which operate their own mail-order pharmacies and may not be motivated to assist a newcomer like Amazon.

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