When I was invited to join a blog conference at the Consumers Union headquarters in Yonkers, I had no idea what to expect. It hadn’t dawned on me that the company is as large as it is – employing 630 people (most of whom work out of the warehouse-sized building in NY) with a 60 million dollar/year budget. The facility itself is a beehive of product testing labs – with rooms devoted to the analysis of product performance for everything from washing machines to baby strollers.
And what were health bloggers doing in the midst of this? Apparently Consumer Reports is dipping their toe into the health ratings game, and they wisely decided to ask providers what they made of that. I explained my experience with the lack of consumer incentives to rate doctors – and offered a cautionary tale of a failed rating database at my previous company. Others suggested that quality ratings are impossible to quantify without consistent data reporting, and that care is provided to most patients by teams of providers, not one single physician, so ratings might not mesh well with outcomes anyway.
We had a productive discussion with familiar faces and old friends (Jan Gurley, Micheal Breus, Edwin Leap, Dr. Rob, Amy Tenderich, Scott Hensley, Julie Deardorff, Alvaro Fernandez, Jennifer Huget, Wendy Lawson, Craig Newmark, Gary Schwitzer, and others) but my favorite part of the program involved cookie taste- testing.
We bloggers all filed in to the sensory testing lab and were asked to sample some commercial chocolate chip cookies. Each of us had our own little plastic container with two cookies inside, and we were instructed to taste and describe them in as detailed a manner as possible. I offered “chalky” as my adjective of choice, and Scott Hensley (of the Wall Street Journal Health Blog) seconded my notion as another blogger added “chemically.”
There was general consensus that we didn’t like the cookies – and we began inquiring as to their brand name. The Consumer Reports lab director dutifully declined to disclose the manufacturer’s name, at which point Scott Hensley reached into a nearby garbage can and produced an empty cookie package. He held the wrapper aloft and asked with gleeful sarcasm: “Might it be this brand here?”
We all burst into laughter as a triumphant Hensley proved his investigative reporting skills in the midst of us. It was one of those surreal moments that you never forget.
But on a more serious note, I was struck by the scientific approach that Consumers Union takes in its product testing. It struck a chord with me since I worry about the evidence (or lack thereof) behind certain medical practices and treatments. The Internet seems to be teaming with subjectivity rather than tested and true information. How are consumers to know what’s real anymore?
I certainly hope that companies like Consumers Union can weather the financial storms and continue to empower people with carefully tested, controlled, and unbiased information. Without them we’re left with a bunch of anecodotes in a sea of opinion. Perhaps physicians and health scientists have more in common with Consumers Union than we know? I for one am convinced that our common interests go even deeper than chocolate chip cookies.