The Lessons of Theranos

Writing & Research: Svetlana Simantov

Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Elizabeth Holmes. Extremely similar people at first glance: all dropped out of prestigious colleges in order to make their new-founded idea, be it a social media platform or a technological innovation, a reality that would ultimately change the human condition.


Difference? Elizabeth Holmes’ initiative was an absolute fraud.


At age 19, Holmes abandoned her education at Stanford University to begin her tech company Theranos that would supposedly revolutionize the healthcare sphere. The founder insisted that her invention would only require a few drops of blood of a person’s time. That small amount of blood would be collected into a cartilage the size of a credit card that would then be inserted within “the Edison”, or the analysis machine that utilizes the blood submitted to provide conclusions to hundreds of medical tests ordered. With this technological innovation, Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes were not only able to skyrocket to the worth of $9 billion in the span of a decade, but also express the hope of a better future of healthcare in the world.


Yet the product, and the ultimate service, Theranos had promised to deliver was inadequate, as the Edison would either break down or not test the blood correctly altogether. Elizabeth Holmes, therefore, deceived her powerful investors (including Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch), partners, regulators, employees, and the overall public eye for years until the charade was over in 2018 with multiple lawsuits and federal charges thrown against Theranos.


Although Holmes’ corruption and deceit does make us all wonder how the company survived for ten years, the downfall of Theranos also poses a significant, and perhaps a very important, question for us all - are we ever going to see an invention of the same degree in our future? Is there going to be some technological machine that would serve the same purpose on a similar level of simplicity as did Holmes’ vision? Will a tech product replace medical professionals, and would that be a smart choice in the first place?


Throughout the life of Theranos, pathologists have expressed their skepticism of the product, claiming that the invention was too good to be true; however, medical professionals understand that improvements on healthcare tools, specifically what Holmes attempted to tackle, are necessary and quite possible.


As Elizabeth Holmes neglected to discuss her product with a medical professional, multiple people within that expertise would have advised the founder in her flaws of the invention. One of Holmes’ short-lived laboratory directors was a dermatologist that ultimately concluded the inaccuracy of the product and resigned from the position. The first person that informed a famous journalist about the secrecy of Theranos was a pathologist, leading to a shattering expose that destroyed the company’s reputation and income. The medical opinions of people worthy of their experience were ignored in the midst of praise for Holmes and her innovation, causing Theranos to thrive as a facade. Moreover, Holmes’ disregard of the medical community’s comments on her product perhaps factored into the eventual downfall of her company that had the potential of becoming analogously the next iPhone.


All in all, the consensus among the medical community emphasizes the doom of Theranos’ failure due to its demand of speed, accuracy, large abundance of tests, and the kind of tests within the Edison itself. The size of the Edison fundamentally would not be able to withhold the promised amount of over 200 hundred tests, not to mention perform in the quick manner that Holmes strived for, according to plenty of pathologists. In addition, the sheer quantity of tests, as well as the analysis of those tests, may become baffling at times for pathologists themselves, which pinpoints to the still unknown factors of medicine that the tech world may not be ready to address; in other words, the medical circle must conquer the unknown before technology steps in.


Even though the medical sphere does agree that an invention Theranos cultivated would be beneficial, some of the tests included on the “menu” do not belong, predominantly tests that supposedly would detect tumors and cancers. The diagnosis of cancer, unlike other illnesses, is not calculated through an algorithm, but rather requires a medical professional’s examination, expertise, and sound judgment. On the other hand, the tests that confirm STDs, pregnancies, etc., are fitted for the technology proposed by Elizabeth Holmes, assuming that the model performed correctly from the very beginning. Theranos specifically is not included in this hypothetical (and rather hopeful) conversation, but medical professionals realize the potentiality - and necessity - of this kind of technology that can contain smaller amount of tests that are easier to conclude without a human present. The medical profession would still be alive and well, and this invention could serve in the typical area of a pharmacy, or even in the battlefields and third world countries.


Perhaps we will see another attempt of this technology in the future. All we need to do is dream, pursue, and progress. But not to the corrupted extent in the likes of Elizabeth Holmes.



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