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'Don't believe the hype:' Carreyrou talks about reporting the Theranos story Date: 05/15/18

By Rebecca Vesely

John Carreyrou is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at the Wall Street Journal and author of "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup" (release date May 21, 2018), which chronicles the spectacular fall of blood testing technology company Theranos. In October 2015, Carreyrou began breaking stories on the Palo Alto, Calif.-based start up, which raised questions on its claim to have revolutionized the blood testing industry. Carreyrou was a keynote speaker at Health Journalism 2018. In his talk to fellow journalists, he explained how he got the Theranos story. His remarks have been condensed here.

“I last came to Arizona almost three years ago today. I was looking for patients to interview,“ Carreyrou said at the top of his keynote address.

Carryrou was coming off a year-long project on Medicare fraud when he received a tip from a blogger who covers the lab testing industry. The blogger said that he heard from a source who had begun to suspect that Theranos' finger prick blood testing technology was a fraud. Theranos had partnered with Walgreens to offer its blood testing services in locations in the Phoenix area at the time.

Carreyrou used one of the oldest tools in journalism to get his story: shoe leather. He began calling and knocking on doors of doctor's offices in the Phoenix area to ask if they had used Theranos' services and if they'd gotten unusual or suspicious blood test results. He got a few leads that indicated patients who had used the blood testing service had received faulty or unusual blood test results.

John Carreyrou
Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou spoke about his award-winning investigation of Theranos at Health Journalism 2018. (Photo: Len Bruzzese/AHCJ)

Carreyrou also used the Internet to find sources. He checked the customer review website Yelp for reviews and hit upon a family practitioner who had posted a negative review of the Theranos experience. One of this doctor's patients agreed to meet Carreyrou and was “Exhibit A of an inaccurate lab report,“ he said. The blood test done by Theranos on this patient came back with an abnormal result. The patient then spent four hours in a local emergency department, underwent two MRIs and was ultimately sent home after new blood tests came back normal. The out-of-pocket costs for this patient, an independent realtor, totaled $3,000.

This case “showed the emotional and financial toll of a health care scare brought on by inaccurate test results,“ Carreyrou said at his keynote address.

The more he looked, the more cases Carreyrou found of inaccurate test results produced by Theranos blood testing.

Resistance from the company and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was “like nothing I experienced in 20 years of reporting,“ Carreyrou said. To this day, Holmes has not sat down for an interview with Carreyrou.

Carreyrou offered some advice to journalists in pursuit of a difficult story:

  • Get a lawyer. If you are employed by a news organization, alert your in-house counsel to what you are working on early in the process. “I would recommend to all of you, if you work on tough stories that you know are going to be an uphill battle, to bring the lawyers in at an early stage and make them feel they are a part of the process,“ Carreyou said. “I found in this investigation bringing lawyers in very early was hugely beneficial."

  • Don't believe the hype. Theranos had received a lot of good press and was a darling of Silicon Valley when Carreyrou began his research. Carreyrou was wary of Silicon Valley, which has had a longstanding acceptance of "vaporware" – a promising software or hardware that has not yet been released or, possibly, even created. “There's this sort of looseness, this hope that reality catches up,“ he said of the sector.

  • The health care industry is not altruistic. “I often describe the American health care system as the intersection between greed and life and death,“ Carreyrou said. “There are a lot of abuses because there is a lot of money to be made."

  • Journalists play a crucial role. “You are the watchdogs who can prevent“ abuses, he said. “So I'll leave you with these parting words: American society is lucky to have you."