From math to medicine: Pulitzer winner coming to Misericordia

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
Leonhardt -

For a guy with a math degree, David Leonhardt has made quite a name for himself in the world of journalism, what with that Pulitzer prize capping an award-laden career spent mostly with the New York Times.

Yes, that’s the same Times President Donald Trump tweets about, using phrases like “fake news” and “enemy of the people.” And while Leonhardt had something to say about that, its not likely to be part of his keynote speech at Misericordia University’s annual Health Care Symposium on Sept. 21.

Stressing his plans for the speech are still fluid, Leonhardt said he likely will focus on health care costs and outcomes.

“We spend vastly more than any other country in the world, and yet we do not get better results,” he said. The U.S. is home to many medical innovations and “at the very high end, we have the best health care in the world” — the reason very rich people who get very sick often come here for treatment. But that’s not enough to explain the high costs.

“It is almost certainly the case that we are spending substantial amounts of money on care that does not make people healthier.”

Leonhardt suggests the U.S. health industry needs to step back from thinking “the best form of care is the most invasive.” He cites the use of stents — a sort of tubular spring that holds blocked arteries open. “If you are having a heart attack it does enormous good, but we put in stents for lots of people who aren’t having a heart attack.” Studies have shown that lifestyle changes — better diet, more exercise — can be just as effective as a stent in non-heart attack situations

In some cases, reducing costs without endangering patients can be as simple as talking about treatment choices, he added. “You can present information, this treatment comes with these results and these side effects. When presented with that sort of research, people chose the most invasive option less frequently.”

Leonhardt also argues the payment system for health care could use an overhaul. “I see pluses and minuses to having our insurance pay for quality more than quantity,” he said. And there are potential issues when hospitals consolidate. “If you only have one or two people selling something, they have too much power.

How did a guy who majored in applied mathematics at Yale end up the keynote speaker at a health symposium?

“I always loved journalism,” Leonhardt said. “I love the idea of going out and learning about the world and then telling people about it.”

An avid sports fan, he also loved statistics and “the idea that numbers can describe the world.”

Math and journalism meshed well early in his career covering economics, and it’s pretty much impossible to cover the economy without covering the issues of health care costs, he reasoned.

He has worked for the New York Times for 19 years, he said, currently as an op-ed columnist who has been critical of President Trump. Both paper and president made news after Trump tweeted about a meeting with publisher A.G. Sulzberger — a meeting that was supposed to be off the record, until Trump tweeted about it.

Leonhardt pointed out such meetings at the oval office are not unheard of. They can be stressful and tense, as a president may ask something not be published because it could jeopardize national security, “but that’s a healthy tension.” The Sulzberger-Trump tete a tete, he added, was not that kind of meeting.

In response to Trump’s tweets claiming they discussed “fake news” morphing into “enemy of the people,” Sulzberger issued a statement saying he had accepted Trump’s invitation to meet mainly to voice concerns about the president’s “Deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric,” calling Trump’s language “Not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.”

While Leonhardt has been a frequent critic of Trump in his columns, he said he enjoys reading other opinions. “They get me to think about how I might be wrong.”

“It is possible to be an honest, patriotic, fact-using person who is a conservative or a liberal,” he said. “But the current president isn’t an honest person.”

Being open to other’s views is a big reason he likes speaking opportunities such as the upcoming appearance at Misericordia. “My favorite thing about a speech is the question and answer. I find that when I go out and talk to people, I often end up learning a huge amount.”


By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

WHAT: Ninth Annual Health Care Symposium

WHERE: Misericordia University, Lemmond Theater, Walsh Hall

WHEN: Friday, Sept. 21, beginning 8 a.m. Keynote speech 8:50 a.m.

REGISTRATION: Free but limited. visit

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish