I am saddened to report the loss, over the weekend, of perhaps the best health/science writer of her generation, Sharon Begley. Though a “never-smoker,”, the cause of death was lung cancer.
To appreciate the full scope of her accomplishments over her 43-year career at Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and STATNews, peruse this obituary. A highlight (along the many other highlights, including 5 books) might be:
She won more awards and accolades than could fit in an obituary. The accomplishments she was prouder of were making complex ideas accessible to anyone — and beautiful — through her articles and books, and in doing so, training and inspiring generations of science journalists. She taught by example, showing that you could be tough-minded while being kind, that you could be literary without any big-personality bull.
And kind she was. We found common ground and shared hilarity in our respective exposes of the wellness industry and its many foibles. We bonded over this and became good social friends over the last four years of her life, as she and her husband Ned joined our group for bridge and games nights, while Ned played ultimate frisbee with us.
But let’s get to the “kind” part and — rather than duplicate what other obits have said — focus on her contributions to the wellnss industry.
One of her gifts as a journalist was interviewing people in such a kind, low-key, manner that they would accidentally tell the truth. While she wrote many articles on wellness, one article exemplifies this talent, as we bridge players might say, in spades: Top Wellness Award Goes to Workplace Where Many Health Measures Got Worse.
In it, she documented the dishonesty/corruption of the Koop Award, and the harms to the employees of the Boise School System caused by the “award-winning” Wellsteps program. Over the course of two years, Boise teacher risk scores deteriorated by 20%, self-reported health status declined, and costs increased.
Needless to say, the perps wouldn’t talk to me, but she got them to spill their guts before they even realized they had just self-immolated. Specifically, Wellsteps’ CEO, Steve Aldana, admitted to:
- knowingly using regression to the mean to fabricate a claim of risk reduction among the highest-risk employees
- recognizing that trivial self-reported changes in (for example) fruit and vegetable consumption had no effect on healthcare costs
- recognizing that wellness programs increase overall costs
- violating US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines.
She got Ron Goetzel to admit to bestowing an award on Wellsteps for improving employee health despite knowing they harmed employees. (Mr. Aldana served on the awards committee but was the only committee member vendor who hadn’t won one of its own awards, so his award was predictable — and actually predicted.)
But her kindness wasn’t used just for the purposes of extracting self-incriminating information. When Steve Aldana called her a “lier”, her reaction was: “I need to find out what I got wrong, correct and acknowledge it,” as opposed to my own reaction, which was to quote him verbatim. Of course, she never heard from him again.
And the truly kindest thing she ever did was, despite the delicious irony, decline to write anything more about Ron Goetzel after he suffered his heart attack. I should be so kind! (On the other hand, he still maintains enough of an ejection fraction to summon the energy to attempt to sully my reputation, so I still defend myself.)
Two other articles — subsequently picked up by major media outlets — probably helped galvanize opinion to prevent employers from genetically testing employees and their dependents for hidden disease as part of workplace wellness programs:
- Opposition grows to ‘workplace wellness’ bill that would scale back genetic privacy
- House Republicans would let employers demand workers’ genetic test results
She also helped put the kibosh on yet another Goetzel-infused idea, this one to create a so-called “fat tax,” which would require employers to disclose the number of overweight employees, the idea being this would encourage employers to use more punitive and expensive wellness programs. (She handed this one off to a colleague.) It would likely have backfired, but wiser heads prevailed, largely thanks to this article, and Ron’s idea was stillborn.
- Do workplace wellness programs improve employee health?
- Think preventive care saves money? Think again.
Sharon, we miss you already and it’s only been 2 days. Thank you for your great contributions to the workplace wellness field. They played a major role in curbing its excesses, and also for generally improving the health-and-science literacy of the population for more than four decades. And for that time you didn’t double my rather aspirational 6-hearts bid even when you had the other five hearts in your hand.
June 14, 1956 to January 16, 2021