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Sarah Kliff: Why healthcare IT gets little mainstream media

This is part 2 of Moxe’s conversation with Sarah Kliff. Find part 1 here.

Sarah Kliff is perhaps the nation’s leading healthcare reporter. She’s a veteran of Vox.com, Newsweek and The Washington Post, and has appeared as an expert commentator on PBS, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

And yet there’s one healthcare topic that gives her pause.

“I’ve found healthcare IT an intimidating subject to cover,” she says. “All these acronyms, all these things; even though I’ve been covering healthcare for a decade, I don’t understand. I feel like I’m starting from scratch when I come to that.”

She can hardly be faulted. As a subset of the overlapping fields of technology, medicine, government policy and insurance, those in the field of healthcare IT are especially susceptible to catching the disease of “insider’s tongue.” For example, do you prefer EMR, EHR or TEPR?

All the acronyms and uncertain terms can be considered as hazing. It keeps others out, and shows how awfully smart we are. It can also descend to the level of “technobabble,” defined by Wikipedia as “a form of jargon that consists of buzzwords, esoteric language, specialized technical terms, or technical slang that is impossible to understand for the listener.” (Incidentally, did you hear what AAPC said about MIPS in relation to CDI?)

“I think it helps just to focus on something tangible,” says Kliff, “something that isn’t in the weeds of regulation, something that isn’t technical.”

For example, there’s the vox.com article she wrote earlier this year on the problem of faxing patient charts. It was the first story for a general audience on one of healthcare IT’s most pervasive problems, and it continued to be picked up and recirculated by mainstream media.

“I was essentially in the place of one of our readers right there,” says Kliff. “I didn’t know about healthcare IT. I didn’t understand why fax machines are still around.”

But the outsider’s eye may bring new and honest perspective. “I think one of the things that can lead us astray as reporters is — you’re trying to impress your source, you’re trying to show how smart you are, that you’ve kept up with health IT,” she says.

“I just got rid of that pretense. I just said, ‘I am new to this. Why can’t our healthcare systems talk to each other?’ ”

Indeed. “Instead of getting into the nitty gritty of it, I got into the big picture,” she recalls. Even so, after covering healthcare for national media over a decade, Kliff fears losing her outsider’s eye.

“The thing I worry about is accepting a lot of the weird things about healthcare as fact,” she says. “It’s like saying, ‘Gee our prices are high and this is how it is.’ Or we realize — fax machines, and this is a healthcare system? I worry about not remaining curious.”

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