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Why We Can't Forget the People With Health Conditions Theranos Failed

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Hulu has officially released all episodes of its hit series “The Dropout,” which follows the meteoritic rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes — the Stanford dropout whose medical technology startup was based on the false premise that the company could run hundreds of lifesaving blood tests using a single drop of blood. Amanda Seyfried, who plays Holmes, has captivated the world with a convincing portrayal of Holmes’ signature unblinking blue eyes, black turtleneck tops, and shockingly deep voice, and the sheer ridiculousness of the true story is enough to lure audiences in. However, there’s another piece of the Theranos story that’s even more important to consider while watching “The Dropout” — the real people who used Theranos’s faulty blood tests to make health decisions and the dangerous ways in which their health was affected by Theranos technology.

Holmes lured investors — and eventually, medical doctors and patients — in with the promise that one-of-a-kind Theranos medical devices could test just a pinprick of blood for hundreds of medical conditions — from high cholesterol to sexually transmitted diseases. Company employees noticed a culture of secrecy at Theranos and began to suspect the revolutionary blood processing technology wasn’t as functional as Elizabeth Holmes claimed, but that didn’t stop Holmes from inking a $140 million deal with Walgreens, which ultimately led to Theranos blood testing centers being rolled out in Walgreens drug stores across California and Arizona. Unfortunately, though, many patients whose doctors recommended Theranos blood tests used inaccurate Theranos testing results to inform their future medical decisions.

According to ABC’s “20/20,” Sheri Ackert, a breast cancer survivor who needed regular blood tests to monitor her estradiol levels, took a Theranos blood test at Walgreens after her OB/GYN suggested she try one. When the results came back, Ackert was shocked — her estradiol levels were over 300, which her doctor said indicated a possible tumor. When she took a blood test at a non-Theranos lab, Ackert found her estradiol was “practically nonexistent” — hundreds of points off from her Theranos test results.

Ackert was far from alone, though. Among numerous others whose Theranos test results were wildly inaccurate was Mehrl Ellsworth, who needed to test his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels to screen for prostate cancer. Ellsworth’s PSA blood test came back with a number nearly 1,000 times the typical amount, but a baseline blood test revealed his antigen levels were within a healthy range. Had Ellsworth and his doctor relied exclusively on Theranos testing, Ellsworth may have received treatment for a condition he didn’t have — which can significantly affect the body and may even be fatal.

Holmes’s decision to partner with a high-profile pharmaceutical company when she knew her company’s product didn’t work wasn’t just unethical — it was also dangerous. The ways medical devices function — or don’t function — can be the difference between life and death for vulnerable patients, but Holmes and Theranos knowingly integrated faulty medical devices and procedures into public phlebotomy centers. The patients didn’t seem to be of any concern to Theranos, though out of everyone who was negatively impacted by Theranos, medical patients experienced some of the most profound effects.

As Theranos continues to make headlines, especially in the wake of Elizabeth Holmes’ upcoming sentencing hearing, much has been made of the high volume of Theranos investors — many of whom were small business owners or individuals — who lost thousands of dollars on a company that was selling a lie. But financial loss tells only one side of the story — the patients who relied on Theranos technology, assuming it to be well-tested and yield accurate results, often ended up with inaccurate test results, medical scares, and in some cases, treatments and procedures they may not have needed. Patients whose doctors relied exclusively on test results from Theranos centers may have lost financially as well, particularly if their test results led to surgeries or treatments insurance refused to cover. These patients may not have only lost trust in Theranos, many may also have lost trust in their own doctors — which can be a difficult relationship to repair, particularly for patients with chronic conditions that necessitate frequent doctor’s appointments.

The emotional toll of receiving false results that may indicate health conditions only to discover that test results are in a healthy range can also wear patients down. In her interview with “20/20,” Sheri Ackert was candid about the anger she felt with Theranos after receiving her false test results. “No one from Theranos called [me back] to apologize,” she said with an edge in her voice. “That’s the least you can do when you mess up so badly.”

The Theranos story encompasses so much more than a wide-eyed young woman whose dreams of helping others crashed and burned after she lied about the failure of her company’s medical technology. Its consequences even are far more life-changing than the financial woes its plainclothes investors endured after the company’s collapse. Though every bit of the Theranos story may feel saddening and appalling, the most deeply ingrained Theranos legacy just might be the impact the company’s faulty technology had on its consumers — the fear, the anger, the betrayal, and the mistrust many patients experienced. As the Theranos story continues to cycle through the news — rife with tales of the financial losses people endured, remember the Theranos patients who lost so much more than money — trust, security, and even their health.

Lead image via The Dropout Hulu’s Official Facebook Page

Originally published: April 11, 2022
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