For years, Dr. Tim Johnson covered the vast and complicated world of health care as chief medical editor for ABC News. During this career, he was a fixture on shows like World News Tonight, 20/20, Nightline and Good Morning America, telling stories that helped put the industry in sharper perspective for millions of viewers.
These days, Dr. Johnson is moving into a new phase of his career. As a writer and speaker, he’s focused on translating years of reporting into tangible policy prescriptions for health care reform. His hope? To help the U.S. get out of what he calls a “reform traffic jam” that has crippled much-needed changes for years now.
On tonight’s show, we talk to Dr. Johnson, who’s in town for the groundbreaking of a new North Park University building named in his honor. Watch a web-extra conversation with Dr. Johnson and read the Q&A below.
It seems like, when it comes to health care, U.S. public officials are often hesitant to look to foreign countries for inspiration and guidance. Why do you think that is in this case, given that we do that for other areas – education, for instance?
That’s a great question. I don’t pretend to understand the total answer. But health care is considered so very personal. People have an innate fear about anything that might disturb their health care.
The medical industrial complex in this country is also very powerful. They’re so involved in our government. There were six lobbyists for every member of Congress during the ACA [Affordable Care Act] debate. The industry’s goal is to preserve their part of the honey pot.
I think this country is going to wait until it hits a financial abyss, and faces an emergency situation on health care.
You’ve said there’s an industry that could provide a perfect model for health care reform. What’s that?
I use this example when I speak to groups all the time. One of our great fears is that the government is going to “take over our health care.” I point out that the airline industry is intensely competitive under the private marketplace, yet it’s also under heavy regulation from the government. As a result, the industry has an incredibly safe record.
On the other hand, we don’t have standardized regulation or oversight for health care. And we have an incredibly high number of deaths from medical errors.
You’ve interviewed both Obama and Romney on health care reform. Can you contrast the essence of their two visions?
When I interviewed Romney, it was a very different time. He was the governor of Massachusetts. He was very strong in advocating for mandated insurance and insurance exchanges. Now, he’s trying to distance himself from the model in Massachusetts, saying it’s a decision that’s left up to the states and the federal government shouldn’t follow his lead.
I think each state doing its own thing would be a disaster.
One of the health care reforms you propose is a complete ban on advertising until a new drug has been on the market for two years. What would that change?
It would change the rush to sell a product right off the bat. We know about all the recalls that occur with new devices and drugs… [But] you don’t learn about a new drug and device until it’s out for a while. That’s when you find out new things. Why foist a new drug on the public without accumulating experiences first?
Are there problems you see with the media coverage of health? Are we too focused with covering shiny new innovations, in lieu of covering systematic problems?
Yes. I think we are. And I say that as someone who spent 35 years covering new developments. I think we became so focused on breakthroughs and clinical care, and we didn’t plan attention to the systemic problems.
This stuff is not as sexy. It’s harder to understand. But we’re headed for total financial disaster if we don’t look at these things.
You argue that a lot of elected officials are hesitant to reform health care because it would lead to massive job losses. Tell me about this dynamic?
I think that’s a hidden issue that we never talk openly about. But real reform means changes in the way we spend our money. I think we have to think of it as job displacement, but not job loss. These workers can be re-trained to do things we need.
But we’re not smart enough to do this. Our Congress won’t do this.
I believe the only hope for us is for health care decisions to be made by outside experts (patients, physicians, nurses, etc). Many developed countries have done this – put together groups of experts to implement reforms. But this country won’t do that.
You’re an ordained Protestant minister. How does that role intersect with your role as a health reporter?
I’d say that the motivation for being a physician or a minister, priest, rabbi is similar. I’ve been trained in both areas – faith and medicine – but I don’t practice in either one. But my training made me, I hope, more sensitive to the personal impacts of health care.
It’s so easy to talk about health care in technological terms. But I always had an innate antenna and sensitivity to the human impact of these decisions.
This interview has been condensed and edited.