Meet the Editor Behind the Healthcare Headlines (Part 1)
PublishedAugust 4, 2021
Andrew Le, MD: Lydia, thanks for making time for us. You have such an interesting view on healthcare because of where you sit. For those who may not have come across your work, would you tell us about yourself and how you got to where you are today?
Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer: I joined Business Insider in 2015, a week after graduating from Northwestern University. I was hired as a science intern.
Martin Shkreli was arrested in 2015 by the FBI for securities fraud, of which he was eventually found guilty in 2017. Image courtesy of Bloomberg via Getty Images.
I always knew I wanted to do something at the intersection of business and healthcare. So, during my first couple of months at BI, I tried to carve that out. I spent a lot of time convincing sources like Martin Shkreli to get on the phone when he was in the headlines for price gouging on Daraprim and fun stuff like that.
Eventually, I convinced my editors to hire me full time. I was the first healthcare reporter here at Insider. Flash forward six years and now I am finishing my first year as editor on the team. We're up to six full-time reporters. We have a fellow, too, and two editors on the team. We’re a lot bigger than we were six years ago.
Andrew: Congratulations. You built a startup within a startup. What have you enjoyed most about the process?
Lydia: Reporting is the most rewarding when I can pinpoint trends in the news headlines, when certain dots connect in a way that makes sense. It's been interesting to figure out what's coming next in the world of healthcare or biotech—or both. Themes often connect the worlds of digital health and biotech, but sometimes biotech is all about vaccines. That's a totally different ball game.
What excites me most is hearing about a new idea or a new approach that could fundamentally change how the industry works. You don't see it too often, but it's fun when it happens.
Andrew: It’s surprising that you draw lines between those two worlds, but it makes sense. What interests you most? What keeps you up at night when it comes to your job or the industry?
Lydia: When it comes to my team and the reporting we do, I think most about making sure that the reporting we do on any given day is accurate and fair. If anything's keeping me up at night, it's worrying about getting a story completely right. Can we make it more accurate? Are we missing something because we're looking over here and we should be looking over there?
The biggest problem in the industry as a whole—and this is something I think about a lot as an editor and informs the stories I agree to running—is the amount of money we spend in healthcare. It increases every year, and it's not going to slow down.
A lot of companies purport that they can change that cost curve and bring it down. I'm pretty skeptical it can happen because I've not seen the evidence. Whether we're talking about new payment models for primary care or the drug crisis, in every sector we can add this cool new tool or service. But is it ultimately decreasing the cost of healthcare for Americans?
Andrew: I couldn't agree with you more. Is healthcare spending going to basically choke GDP? That and climate change keep me up at night.
I know from reading a lot of your articles that you're a marathoner, right? Do you use any healthcare tech in your training?
Lydia: The tool I use most frequently—besides shoes—is the app Strava. I love being able to track how many miles I'm running. It's a great motivational tool.
Andrew: You know you're a legit athlete when you mention Strava. I understand there is a feature that shows you no one has run this patch of road faster than you. Am I getting that right?
Lydia: Yes. You can be the king of the route.
Andrew: Going back to the connections you see between healthcare tech and life sciences, what in your view looks exciting in the near future?
Lydia: It probably won't come as a shock to you, but my reporters’ beats are converging in an interesting area. When you think about digital health and the future of the healthcare industry, there is a real effort to try and own where people go first when they're not feeling well.
This is interesting because it includes digital solutions like triaging apps as well as major initiatives. What Amazon is up to and what Walmart's up to, it's happening there. It's happening at Humana where they're trying to figure out how the insurer can own the relationship with you. Seeing how many entities are trying to take on that role of being the go-to place for consumers is fascinating to me. It's in every piece of the industry, from hospitals to genetic testing.
Andrew: At Buoy, we think about that quite a bit. Do you have a hunch about who the winner will be? Is it going to be Walmart with millions of people going through stores every day? Is it a wellness tool? Or is it Strava? There's a lot of daily engagement there. Is it 23andMe that owns all of these genetic results?
Lydia: There are two key forces at play. One is consumers and consumer behaviors and consumer interests. Healthcare consumers are on the hook for a lot. Deductibles are higher than they've ever been. At the same time, we still don't have tons of transparency. And you don’t have a lot of room to shop around. So, there aren’t many consumer levers to pull. But if we were in a world in which that could happen, a player like a Walmart could win out because they can do a lot more with cash pay prices and things like that.
The other force to consider is the owner of the healthcare dollar: the payers, the insurers, and the employers. What kind of levers can they pull? If they're controlling the dollar, they can tell you which primary care doctor to see and for what kind of care.
In a perfect world, consumers would win out. It would be nice to see a relationship-based front door to healthcare. I don't know if it's a primary care doctor, but ideally, it'd be relationship based. It still feels entirely up in the air and probably will for some time.
Andrew: I agree that it feels like we're in the first few innings of that game. If the incentives are aligned, it could mean a lot of good for the world. Maybe we could finally bend that cost curve.
In Part 2 of the conversation, Lydia talks about her philosophy on standing out in a crowded healthcare journalism field (hint: it includes covering difficult stories). She also shares her advice for future journalists.
About the participants:
Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer is the healthcare editor for Business Insider.
Andrew Le, MD, is the CEO and cofounder of Buoy Health.