Theranos Theatrics: A Look Back
By Melanie Juarez
“Are you hiring?” are the first three words of “The Dropout.” Then it turns out to be just an advertisement.
The real first words of the podcast are “We are on the record at the beginning of media one, volume one.” They are spoken by a man. Then, a woman says “This is the testimony of Elizabeth Holmes, going on the record in San Francisco, California at nine o’clock AM on July 11, 2017. Ms. Holmes, please raise your right hand. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
Ms. Holmes does.
Elizabeth Holmes is not a name most high school students would recognize. She is the founder and longtime CEO of Theranos, a healthcare company that created revolutionary medical technology that could test patients for hundreds of diseases and conditions with just a single pinprick’s worth of blood. Holmes dropped out of Stanford University in 2003 as a sophomore to start the company; I find it particularly amusing that the podcast was named after this fact, which in the grand scheme of things, is definitely not the most shocking detail about Holmes or the story. For several years, Holmes was lauded by media and the business world as one of the most promising young entrepreneurs. Theranos revolutionized patient care and expanded affordable access to healthcare services -- they were, in Holmes’ own words, “changing the world.”
That is, until the company was exposed as a fraud. Holmes and her managing partner, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were indicted on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy in the summer of 2018. Theranos officially ceased operating that fall.
“The Dropout” documents the rise and fall of Theranos. It traces the story all the way back to Holmes’ high school physics teacher, through interviews, court depositions, and recordings of the myriad of people who became entangled in the company. There are six episodes, each about 40 minutes long. Hosted by journalist Rebecca Jarvis, it began airing in mid-January by ABC News, and the final episode aired on 27 February.
Akin to radio, podcasts like “The Dropout” have unique sets of challenges and strengths. They lack the visual saturation of television and film, stripping a story down to just voices and music. Podcasts have been growing in popularity in recent years as a form of entertainment that allows for that visual respite, and for its convenience, as audiences can multitask while listening.
The story that “The Dropout” tells is gripping and at times almost unbelievable. Everything from covert lab result cover-ups, to blackmailing employees into signing confidentiality agreements, to a romantic relationship between Holmes and investor-turned-unqualified-lab-manager Balwani happened at Theranos. The most unsettling part is that the company gave patients false health information; hundreds of tests done on Theranos technology were falsified, sometimes incorrectly alerting patients of conditions like diabetes or cancer.
The podcast begins with a portrait of Holmes as a young woman, first in high school, then through her short time at Stanford. Then, in the second, third, and fourth episodes, the show documents the way business was conducted at Theranos (spoiler: not very well). These episodes get a bit dicey, not only because of an abundance of names, but also because it is unclear whether the events are being described chronologically. While as a whole the podcast is compelling, the pacing of these first episodes feels at times far too slow, yet at others far too fast.
The best episode is definitely episode four, “The Whistleblower.” In it, Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz, two then-recent college graduates that worked in Theranos labs, are the first people to speak out against the company’s practices. Theranos finally gets taken down.
The final two episodes follow the legal nightmare that ensued after the company was exposed. The Dropout does not reach the conclusion of the Theranos story, however: the criminal case against Holmes and Balwani has yet to conclude -- the literal millions of documents involved in the case have complicated processing. In the meantime, “The Dropout” is worth giving a listen to to understand the story behind whatever sentence is handed down.