Criterion #1 Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Health care isn’t free. News stories don’t help patients and consumers if they don’t tackle costs.

News stories on costs of health care criteria

About 69% of the stories we’ve reviewed were rated Not Satisfactory when it came to discussing costs.

When rating a story on this criterion, we expect the story to discuss the costs of the intervention, whether it’s a new device, medication, surgery, exercise fad, therapy or any of the myriad treatments being studied. It’s not good enough to say, “The cost is much lower than the invasive procedures.” What is that cost? How much lower? Also, do insurance policies typically cover the intervention? Might there be other expenses (psychologists, dietitians, required followup visits or tests, etc.) that increase the burden on patients? If you can’t quantify them, you can at least mention them.

For early trials or preliminary research, it may be difficult to estimate costs of an experimental approach early in its development. But a news story can at least cite costs of existing alternatives. If the new approach is comparable to other approaches then the cost of the alternative methods could be cited. Bottom line: If it’s not too early to talk about benefits of a new intervention, it’s not too early to talk about costs.

We also know that some interventions may cost more in the short term, and yet are cost-effective in the long term because they reduce the need for expensive care down the road. While these longer-term costs may be difficult or impossible to pin down, we typically reward stories that make a reasonable attempt to discuss the implications.

The U.S. health care system is notoriously opaque, and we keep that in mind when rating stories. As long as the story gives readers some idea of what it will cost, we’ll typically rate it Satisfactory. Yet nearly 70% of the stories we review fail to satisfy this criterion.

Tips and resources for writing about costs of healthcare interventions.

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of

The spiraling costs of U.S. health care

We spend a greater percentage of the Gross Domestic Product on health care than any other country, but we don’t have the outcomes to show for it. An increasing number of drugs are extremely expensive–especially cancer drugs–and they’re bankrupting people.

  • As reported by Consumer Reports, “health care in the U.S. costs about twice as much as it does in the rest of the developed world. In fact, if our $3 trillion health care sector were its own country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy.”
  • A 2016 U.S. Federal Reserve report found that “twenty-three percent of adults did not expect to be able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full; 25 percent reported skipping medical treatments due to cost in the prior year.”

Satisfactory examples:

Washington Post wisely notes that CAR T-cell therapy may cost at least $300,000
When the drugmaker wouldn’t name a price on this new treatment, the Washington Post not only told readers that, it sought the input of analysts to provide useful (and jaw-dropping) price projections.

Gilead’s Pill Can Stop HIV. So Why Does Almost Nobody Take It?
The review noted that this Bloomberg story provided a very in-depth discussion of costs, including interviews with patients and a description of how a discount offered by Gilead Sciences, Truvada’s manufacturer, often removes most of the co-payment cost burden for insured patients, which can run up to hundreds of dollars a month.

Thorough look at underuse of long-term reversible contraceptives
This New York Times story addressed costs by examining what may be the “under use” of devices and clearly explained some of the nuance about up-front costs versus the long-term cost of contraception. The cost-effectiveness of treatments is something we wish more stories addressed.

Not Satisfactory examples

Laser treatment for eye ‘floaters’–HealthDay notes small study size, but not cost or risks
There was no mention of costs for this procedure in this story.  Nor was there any indication whether most health insurance plans would cover such procedures.  Yet, reviewers noted that a quick search on the web suggested that the costs may run from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per eye, with no assurance that multiple treatments might not be required, raising the costs even more.

ABC story on stroke surgery: More needed on costs, harms, conflicts of interest
This was a close call for reviewers, since the story wisely discussed the cost effectiveness of reducing long-term hospital stays due to stroke. But the story stopped short of providing figures for the surgical method that was under study–endovascular thrombectomy–which our reviewers found was close to $40,000. Not chump change.

Reuters’ ‘New day in lung cancer’ presents overly rosy picture of Keytruda
It’s not hard to find price information for Keytruda: The drug is so expensive its price tag has made headlines of its own. Yet the price tag–upwards of $150,000 a year–didn’t make it in to this story.

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