Sometimes there comes a case so baffling, so strange that there are two podcasts about it created at the same time. Such is the case of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, her company called after the Greek god of phlebotomy. Homes dropped out of Stanford, and founded her company with the revolutionary idea of being able to use only one drop of blood, rather than vials and vials to test for a wide range of illness and disease. As the old adage goes, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.
Holmes could have been the type of shallow grifter that can be found all over the place, bigging up their brilliant ideas, partly to gain kudos and admiration, and partly to persuade herself of her own importance and relevance. However, there is nothing small scale about Elizabeth Holmes, on Theranos, she went big. There were the contracts with national organisations to draw blood in retail stores across the US, there are household names, from politics and military who sat on her board, a plethora of old, rich, white men in whose eyes she could do no wrong, and would break family bonds they felt so strongly about her. There was the many, many, many interviews, conference speeches, and yes, you guessed it, a Ted Talk.
Bad Blood: The Final Chapter is presented by Emily Saul and host John Carreyrou, the journalist who broke the original story, Carreyrou knows this story intimately. The Drop Out is presented by Rebecca Jarvis who is the Chief Business, Technology and Economics reporter for ABC news, who has undertaken a multi-year investigation. What makes both of these podcasts relevant right now, is that Elizabeth Holmes is currently on trial.
Both podcasts are well produced, thoroughly researched, and contain interviews with important players. They also both give week by week reporting on what is happening in the court room. Bad Blood however feels a little more personal. Not a lot, Carreyrou does not become over emotional or rant in the story, but he does become part of it himself. It’s hard to blame him for the emotion coming through because he did receive aggressive treatment from Theranos’s lawyers who tried at every turn to thwart the story.
While both podcasts examine the case for and against Elizabeth Holmes, there is not much talk about the effect that the scandal had on ordinary people. In fact, at some points it is easy to start thinking the main claim against Holmes is that she fooled and embarrassed some very, very rich people, but it did have real world consequences. We are told about the false positives for HIV, the women who had previously miscarried three times being told that yet again she was miscarrying, fortunately she had a healthy baby girl. Even more worrying than these individual stories of needless distress, we hear that Holmes wanted Theranos to become a player in the fight against Ebola, and Covid-19. The kind of havoc that Theranos could have created in the midst of these deadly pandemics is probably unquantifiable, and we should all be thankful never happened.
Listening to either podcast will give you a good overview of the scandal, as well as regular reporting on the trial. Which one you prefer may just come down to personal like or dislike of presenting style. However so far both podcasts have missed out one important piece of the puzzle, they are missing the wood for the tree’s. That piece is that Tharenos and Holmes would have not been able to pull the wool over so many people’s eyes with such a seductive set of emperors clothes if it hadn’t existed within a health system that puts profit before people on such a large scale. In a system that is largely run by private business it was probably inevitable that sooner or later the profit-before-all fake-it-till-you-make-it narcissism that became lionised in silicon valley would finally also hit American health care. As ever, while rich people play at saving the world, the ordinary among us are the ones who pay the price in our lives.