Deconstructing a NYT op-ed in three acts

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

On April 17, New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column about globalization, international competition and entrepreneurship. Here, as anyone who has even held a newspaper with his column in it will know, he’s on all too familiar territory. It’s not until he steps over into uncritical praise of a medical device maker that Friedman starts stepping on land mines.

He profiles EndoStim, a company working on an implant to treat acid reflux. Friedman admits that he has “no idea if the product will succeed in the marketplace,” then the cheerleading begins.

EndoStim was inspired by Cuban and Indian immigrants to America and funded by St. Louis venture capitalists. Its prototype is being manufactured in Uruguay, with the help of Israeli engineers and constant feedback from doctors in India and Chile. Oh, and the C.E.O. is a South African, who was educated at the Sorbonne, but lives in Missouri and California, and his head office is basically a BlackBerry. While rescuing General Motors will save some old jobs, only by spawning thousands of EndoStims — thousands — will we generate the kind of good new jobs to keep raising our standard of living.

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Photo by Roadsidepictures via Flickr

Journalist Merrill Goozner, of GoozNews fame, picked up on the story the next day and asked the world “Why Is Tom Friedman Championing Higher Health Care Costs?” Goozner effortlessly chronicles the marketing-driven history of acid reflux treatments, from Pepto-Bismol to Zantac to Prilosec to Nexium, each conveniently emerging as the patent to their predecessor expired, then puts EndoStim in its place at the end of the chain.

… instead of finally being out from beneath the wasted billions now being spent on brand name acid indigestion pills like Nexium, the health care system will be lined up to move onto the next chapter in the lengthening medical text for treating what for most people is a relatively minor and passing phenomenon.

In his final paragraph, Goozner gets to the heart of what Friedman’s vision of “thousands of EndoStims” really means for the U.S. economy.

Friedman is right. Endostim’s success will create “the best jobs – top management, marketing, design” at company headquarters. But let’s not forget that to create those jobs, the entire society through its collective health care system will have to pay an unnecessary tax, which burdens every other industry and shifts scarce societal resources away from potentially more useful activities.

Finally, Trudy Lieberman, AHCJ immediate past president, catches Goozner’s post and wades into the fray in her own column on cjr.org, writing that Friedman’s column was “essentially a puff piece for EndoStim.” Lieberman ties Goozner’s observations on EndoStim into his previous writings as well as her own, writing “there’s nothing in the new law that limits the use of the device only to patients with chronic disease who don’t respond to other, less costly treatments.”

I can see hospitals advertising: “Hey acid reflux sufferers come to us. Our surgeons know how to get that thing down your gut. They are the best in the world, and by the way, insurance will pay.”

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