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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.

Trint, which is $15 an hour, can transcribe an interview within minutes because it is done by machine. The transcript is sometimes rough, but it’s synced to the audio in an easy-to-use interface, so it’s great on deadline, when I can search for keywords and check the audio for accuracy. For longer projects, I use Rev, which uses human transcribers and is more accurate. Rev is $1 a minute and returns transcripts within 24 hours, although it frequently delivers faster than that.

ImageCreditEvan Jenkins for The New York TimesImageCreditEvan Jenkins for The New York Times

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.)

One hot area is online prescribing. Platforms like Hims and Roman are using telemedicine to sell everything from erectile dysfunction treatments to drugs for performance anxiety. But while some users have praised the sites for their convenience, they have raised questions about whether they are running afoul of federal and state laws that regulate the marketing, prescribing and distribution of prescription drugs. And while ads for the sites may be ubiquitous, the vast majority of Americans still get their prescriptions the old-fashioned way — from a face-to-face doctor who sends the prescription to a pharmacy.

ImageCreditEvan Jenkins for The New York Times

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.

One year after the acquisition, Amazon’s plans for Pillpack are still unclear, and the company has said little, though it has been promoting the service on its home page.

ImageCreditEvan Jenkins for The New York Times

Outside of work, what tech product are you obsessed with?

An app, iNaturalist, makes me giddy nearly every time I use it.

Using the camera on my phone, the app snaps a picture of any living thing — trees, flowers, bugs, fungus, birds, mammals — and then scans its database to provide educated guesses about which species I’ve seen. I decide which species I think it is (there is a handy summary and distribution map to help), then I share the post with a worldwide community of naturalists. Once others have confirmed my identification, the sighting is considered “research grade” and is used by scientists around the world to better understand our natural environment.

The app turns nature walks — or just a trip to the playground — into a treasure hunt for my kids and me, and it’s cool to think that we’re helping the broader scientific community. Thanks to the iNaturalist app, I know that a house finch recently visited me while I was working on my roof deck, and that we spotted a family of sandhill cranes on a camping trip to northern Illinois.

My favorite household tech product is an Ecovacs Deebot robotic vacuum. I named him Fred. I know he’s just a robot, but I’ve become quite fond of my new co-worker: Fred whirs efficiently around our house, sucking up Cheerios and toast crumbs, while I pound out a story on deadline.


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