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Sarah Kliff Holds Healthcare Feet to Fire with “Dumb Questions”

Last winter, Moxe had the good fortune to interview Sarah Kliff, perhaps the nation’s leading reporter on healthcare policy, and the last one to interview President Obama before he left office. (She sits left in the photo.)

“The interview actually ran longer than our allotted time,” Kliff recalls. “If you watch it, President Obama has incredibly in-depth answers on healthcare. He can spend 15, 20 minutes answering one question.”

This caused a problem of sorts. “At some point in the interview – my favorite part – he kind of asked us, ‘Like, how long do you guys have?’ Well, you’re the president!” she recalls, laughing.

A veteran of The Washington Post, Kliff has appeared as an expert commentator on PBS’s Newshour and Washington Week, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and NPR’s Fresh Air. Late last year she wrote on the problem of faxing in healthcare for Vox.com, where she serves as a senior editor. It was the first article for a general audience on one of healthcare IT’s most pervasive problems.

Kliff was in Madison as a guest of the University of Wisconsin, and during her extended stay she was a panelist in a discussion staged by the Center for Journalism Ethics.

Funny, proud and self-deprecating at the same time, the next day she told us that a lot of her work is “driven by questions that I-” And Kliff paused, searching for words before starting again, earnestly and increasingly passionate:

“Questions that . . . I think some people think I have dumb questions about healthcare, but which I think are fundamental to healthcare. Like, why are all these fax machines in the healthcare system? And why is it so expensive to get a Band-Aid in an emergency room?”

Yet Kliff never set out to be a journalist. “My dad was a reporter,” she says. “I did not want to be a reporter, because who wants to do what your parents do?”

Born in Montreal to American parents, Kliff holds dual citizenship. She grew up in the Seattle area, “and then I confused everyone by going to Washington University — in St. Louis,” she says. She studied philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and worked at the college newspaper. Senior year Kliff served as editor in chief.

“It turns out I really liked it. I really like asking people nosy questions without having an excuse to do that.” Smiling broadly, she adds, “And I really like learning about other people. I like finding out personal details that would generally not be socially acceptable to ask someone.”

She interned at Newsweek, where she worked on the consumer health desk, “which is more like fitness and pills and beauty products,” and then was shifted to the political desk, where she was hired as an assistant for the 2008 election.

“That was kind where it all started,” she recalls. After the election “I got moved back to the health desk, but I was still really interested in politics. And of course, then the health politics debate was just getting started. It ended up being the place I wanted to focus. It turns out for nine years it’s kept me interested.”

Given the political landscape, healthcare policy quickly became Kliff’s specialty. However, she’s also unafraid to relate her own experiences, becoming an incredibly-well-informed patient who – yes – enjoys the freedom to ask “dumb” questions that turn out to be profound. For example, some time ago Kliff had been having issues with her feet. And so she wrote about what it was like to be a patient with chronic pain.

“It helped me understand the healthcare system from the patient perspective, which I usually I don’t write from,” she says. “And then talking to a lot of experts about why?

“That’s sort of the burden that the American healthcare system puts on patients: to make sure all the records are getting transferred, to make sure the prescriptions are getting filled, to call like five times to make sure something they said was going to happen is actually going to happen.”

When you get right down to it, she says, it’s all merely about “why things work in the ways they work, or work in such weird ways. Or don’t work.”

Next time: the “outsider’s eye” and the difficulty of covering healthcare IT.

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