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By asking ‘how, and not did, Elizabeth Holmes’ gender impact[ed] coverage and public opinion of the issues at Theranos?’ doesn’t the question already assume Elizabeth Holmes’ gender impacted coverage and public opinion about Theranos’ issues. Though it may even be a fair assumption, does it withstand scrutiny and ultimately, does it matter?

Theranos started in 2003 and yet breathless news coverage about it and Elizabeth Holmes began only 10 years later, around August-September 2013 (1). Begs the question what was happening at Theranos between 2003 and 2013? What had Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos done in those 10 years? We may never fully know but we have ample media coverage to help outline what we’ve learned about Theranos since 2013. When the news media first introduced us to Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos had

  • Assembled a board of political heavyweights with heft among deep-pocketed people around the world.
  • Attracted steadily increasing investment.
  • Announced a partnership to open Theranos Wellness Centers inside Walgreens drug stores
    • The first one in Palo Alto, California in September 2013 (2).
    • Expanded to several more in the Phoenix, Arizona area a month later (3).

2013 to 2015, the only news about Theranos seemed to be good news (see summary of Theranos milestones in figure below from 4).

  • 2014 to 2015: Investments increased to the tune of 100s of millions of US $.
  • 2015: Arizona passed a Theranos co-authored bill that permitted patients to order any blood test they wanted without a doctor’s referral.
  • July 2015: the FDA cleared Theranos’ herpes simplex virus 1 IgG test.

Clearly, the relentless news coverage about Theranos that started in fall 2013 wasn’t happenstance or coincidental. Clearly, Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes assiduously sought the limelight around the time they were teeing up to a series of hefty accomplishments to their name. Now that this story has turned ever so sour, it’s important to recall Holmes and Theranos had plenty of fawning coverage when they first came to public attention.

Under the circumstances isn’t it reasonable to expect complimentary, even adulatory coverage given the backstory of a 19 year old Stanford University dropout who claimed to have decided to revolutionize blood testing, who then spent years in ‘stealth’ mode, only emerging to announce they were offering hundreds of cheaper, more accurate tests from just a drop of blood, using a proprietary microfluidics-based system they developed from scratch? Given such a singular arc, doesn’t it seem reasonable that coverage would be flattering, regardless of the person’s gender? And indeed, given the steady stream of cover stories, flattering coverage it was (5, 6, 7, 8).

How could it be otherwise with awards following in short order (9), culminating in Holmes being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in 2015 (10)? Maybe gender added some additional mystique since there are so few self-made female billionaires but surely the early anointing had more to do with the imprimatur that came with the big money and political heavyweights associated with the Theranos brand. Back then, wouldn’t it have seemed reasonable to assume that surely such investment and luminaries associating with Theranos meant its technology was solid, especially given the 10-year long ‘stealth’ mode development phase?

John Carreyrou ‘s first explosive Wall Street Journal expose came out in October 2015 when the FDA had already inspected Theranos unannounced and subsequently informed it its proprietary ‘nanotainers’ were unapproved medical devices which it should stop using (11). In other words, first major negative news of Theranos came when US federal regulators had already started probing its operations and even shackled its capacity to use its proprietary technology. This implies behind the scenes action of some duration that we just weren’t and aren’t privy to. When did such scrutiny start? What triggered it? Carreyrou’s reports suggest some former employees got the ball rolling by filing complaints with federal regulators (12).

Two months later, in January 2016, another US federal regulator, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), announced it was considering putting the screws on Theranos (13). However Theranos chose to address this regulator’s concerns, it obviously didn’t work because in July 2016, CMS announced it was yanking Theranos’ CLIA certificate (ability to operate a clinical blood testing lab) and banning Elizabeth Holmes for 2 years from operating labs (14). Presumably, these federal regulators weren’t motivated by gender bias but rather by their mandate to safeguard patient safety. Isn’t that a good thing?

If news coverage of Elizabeth Holmes turned steadily rancorous with the steady drip-drip of bad news about it, was it to do with her gender or rather about the more crucial matter at hand, that Theranos’ tests weren’t working as promised, the regulator’s concerns even going so far as to suggest patients’ lives may have been exposed to jeopardy? Yes, when Theranos seemed to be on the up and up, some may have cheered her on because Holmes is a woman, and yes, when her narrative started to fray, some may have had their pitchforks out at the ready because Holmes is a woman. Whichever pair of those jaundiced eyeglasses we may choose to don, we’ll likely find a narrative in news coverage to fit our bias. However, does the person’s gender matter when it’s about patient safety? Doesn’t accountability matter when it’s about patient safety, regardless of the person’s gender? Shouldn’t that be the issue we choose to keep front and center about this story?


1. Zero Hedge, Tyler Durden, May 19, 2016. Elizabeth Holmes Admits Theranos’ “Technology” Is A Fraud: Restates, Voids Years Of Test Results

2. The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Rago, September 8, 2013. Elizabeth Holmes: The Breakthrough of Instant Diagnosis

3. BusinessWire, November 13, 2015. Theranos and Walgreens Expand Diagnostic Lab Testing to the Phoenix Metropolitan Area

4. Theranos Ban – Unicorns Aren’t Bulletproof – ValueWalk

5. Wired, Caitlin Roper, Feb 18, 2014. This Woman Invented a Way to Run 30 Lab Tests on Only One Drop of Blood

6. Fortune, Roger Parloff, June 18, 2014. This CEO is out for blood

7. CNN Money, Rachel Crane, October 16, 2014. She’s America’s youngest female billionaire – and a dropout

8. The New Yorker, Ken Auletta, Dec 14, 2014. Blood, Simpler – The New Yorker

9. 2015 Horatio Alger Award winner, March 9, 2015. Member Profile | Horatio Alger Association

10. Time magazine, Henry A. Kissinger, April 16, 2015. Elizabeth Holmes: The World’s 100 Most Influential People

11. The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou, July 16, 2016. Hot Startup Theranos Dials Back Lab Tests at FDA’s Behest

12. The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou, July 16, 2016. Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology

13. The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou, January 27, 2016. Theranos Lab Practices Pose Risk to Patient Health, Regulators Say

14. The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou,Michael Siconolfi, Christopher Weaver, July 8, 2016. Theranos Dealt Sharp Blow as Elizabeth Holmes Is Banned From Operating Labs