The Health Media – A Full Dues Paying Member of the Healthcare Industrial Complex

Executive Summary

I am a positive person and when it comes to being patient, my fuse is several miles long. But when I encounter examples of the profit-motivated influence of the Healthcare Industrial Complex (HIC), I get very angry. It’s virtually impossible to avoid these purveyors of evil so I need to get in touch with my anger.

For example, one of the things I do to satisfy my unnatural, irrational and insatiable curiosity about physical health, mental health and physiology is read. I read a lot. Web sites and magazines. eBooks and hardcopy. Bits. Atoms. I read them all. Here is what my current magazine stack looks like.


And I’ll read them cover to cover, as even more get put in my mailbox. This post focuses on just one of these magazines, but they all have issues (get it? hahaha).

What Is the Healthcare Industrial Complex?

The HIC is what I call the loose confederation of traditional healthcare providers (e.g. hospitals, physicians offices), manufacturing companies (e.g. pharma, medical devices, food), education institutions, the government and the media who conspire to motivate consumer behavior in the direction that is most beneficial to them. The manufacturers fund research by the education and healthcare institutions in hopes of uncovering new benefits for their products. The research community either has to play along, despite conflicts of interest, or see its funding dry up.  Armed with these discoveries, the marketers then cajole (really, they’re always cajoling) the media to publicize their findings or lose precious advertising dollars. This increased demand and consumption make people sicker. Meanwhile, our elected representatives subsidize this behavior with artificial economic support in the form of tax breaks, tariffs, and corporate welfare that protects these players from paying for the true costs of their misbehavior.  It is the most vicious of cycles.

How Powerful is the Healthcare Industrial Complex?

The Healthcare “industry” is the fifth largest part of America’s economic engine. Looking at this another way, when we’re healthy, we threaten a $2 trillion per year business. But that’s not all because that $2 trillion is for the pure-play health institutions that represents just a small piece of the HIC pie (HIC Pie first ingredient? High Fructose Corn Syrup.) The four sectors that earn more cabbage (but want you to eat less cabbage) are:

  1. Wholesale Trade – including the middlemen who move drugs, supplies, food, etc. to the people who distribute them to the end user.
  2. Manufacturing – which includes the pharmaceutical and food processing companies.
  3. Retail Trade- such as drug stores and supermarkets.
  4. Finance and Insurance – where those health insurance companies hang.

Restaurants, educational institutions, and the media are bit players in the overall scheme of things but if we add them to the big 5 above and throw in the $100s of billions that the relevant government agencies (e.g HHS, USDA) control, it’s safe to say that at least 20% of our GDP (or in technical terms, a “crapload”)  is dependent upon undermining your health.

Now to be fair, killing us is not exactly a long-term growth strategy. But in these days of “shareholder value”, very few companies are focused on the long-term. Their attitude is, “Let the next CEO worry about his or her own golden parachute.”

Why Rant Specifically on the Media?

Even though the media is a relatively small player in terms of financial interest in this problem, they are the one place where all the players seem to come together to sell their wares. And they are highly influential.

Here’s a case in point. Health magazine uses the catch phrase “Happy Begins Here.” Seems like a pretty Karma Sensible mission. Below are some covers of it’s most recent issues.


The first thing that should jump out at you is that those are some gorgeous women who look very happy. So the magazine must deliver on its promise. But despite the cheesecake on the cover, I’m not the target audience. Still, I read it because sometimes a guy really needs to know which lipstick shade works best with his peaches-and-cream complexion and should be his go-to autumn color. Also, my clients come in all ages, sexes, shapes and sizes so I like to stand in front of the firehose of information they’re up against. Then there are the obvious observations that have been made many times before:

  1. Setting unrealistic expectations for beauty by using celebrities who, even before Photoshop has its way, come to the photo shoot artificially enhanced.
  2. Implying that you can “spot reduce” body fat when without surgery, you can’t.
  3. Suggesting that certain foods “burn fat”. They don’t.
  4. Snippets about research that demonstrates benefits of some “superfood”. But if you read the primary sources you see the research was sponsored by the lobbyists who represent the superfood’s manufacturers (“this discovery brought to you by America’s Meat and Dairy Council”) and the methods weren’t exactly Kosher.

This is all the usual stuff.

Here’s what really grabs my attention. The typical issue of Health magazine consists of 80-120 pages. My unscientific survey of the last three issues found that at least 1/3 of those pages are ads for drugs. Drugs for depression and social anxiety. Drugs for diabetes and cholesterol control. Drugs for autoimmune diseases, restless leg syndrome, toe fungus, and so on. And of those 25-40 pages of pharma ads, 2/3s (16-27) are disclaimers in boring fine print that explain all the reasons you should not be taking the drugs. They read like the copy of a Colbert Report “Cheating Death” segment (e.g. “Side effects include Jimmy Crack Corns, Increased Risk of Vampire Attack, and Eyearrhea).


Stop Whining and Tell Us What to do About This!

Most people read magazines like Health for one of two reasons. The first is when they’re waiting around in a Doctor’s office and there’s a copy sitting on a table. The publishers give these magazines to doctor’s offices for free. This makes the Doctor happy. Maybe since you’re entertained in the waiting room you’ll be less ornery with the staff. This also  makes the publishers happy because it allows them to inflate their circulation and increase their ad revenues. The drug companies don’t care. They get access to more eyeballs this way. And if one of their ads catches your attention and gets you to ask your doctor about that drug, they’re ecstatic.  It’s just more of the symbiotic relationship between the players in the HIC.

The other reason people read magazines like this is because they are interested in the subject of women’s health and are seeking a curated source of information. I’m not claiming that everything Health publishes is crap. At least once an issue I find an idea that is worth researching. Often this idea ends up being a truly valuable nugget of information that I can use to help my clients.

But the influence of pharmaceutical companies on the editorial content of these magazines can’t be ignored. Never take what you read in these types of magazines at face value. In fact, where your health is concerned, never take anything at face value. Whether it’s something you’ve read, advice from your doctor, or even this blog, ask questions.

I’ll see you in Health!


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