‘Viral’ unmasks medical mercenaries in Naples author Robin Cook page turner

The titles are pithy – a single, evocative, slightly unsettling word. “Coma.” “Epidemic.” “Contagion.” “Pandemic.” And now, “Viral”.

Stories are page-turners of “How could this get worse?” school of literature. It always does, of course.

And the endings are never perfectly linked. It’s the hallmark of ophthalmologist-author Robin Cook, and it doesn’t need a writing award, thank you. The prize for him is to be the biggest, fattest, loudest canary in the coal mine for an America vulnerable to private equity-gobbled medical care and increasingly global health problems.

“Viral” (GP Putnam’s Sons; Aug 2021; $27) lays both bare. The central character’s daughter and wife, Brian Murphy, contract Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a disease transmitted by once-unknown Asian tiger mosquitoes from their New England vacation spot.

Health care does not put patients first

The inadequate treatment of their conditions and the mercenary manipulation of them as patients border on horror. And while the story is fictional, the potential is not. That’s what Cook, who writes between his homes in Naples and Boston, wants us to know.

“My books are full of real medical issues,” he said.

“The benefit of someone like me being fictional is that people who don’t know about this issue will recognize – as long as they realize it’s fictional people in a fictional case – that it happens to real ones. people in real time.”

But, Robin, would an insurance company refuse to pay for transporting someone to the emergency room because they broke down before the paramedics got them into the ambulance?

“Oh, yeah,” he stated, with a wry laugh. “Absolutely. The way they did the franchise that’s in my book, I actually found in my research – that the company did it that way.”

“Donald Trump trumpeted short-term health insurance because it’s so cheap. Well, it’s cheap because companies don’t pay anything. They have clever ways to avoid it. Plus , there’s all this piling up of franchises. It’s kind of a scam that’s been authorized.”

He hopes people will begin to recognize the slowly boiling water of costs they are swimming in. “That’s the benefit of writing fiction — to see if I can make many, many more people aware of these issues. I’m writing fiction when I have.”

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Cook’s first book sounding the health care alarm hit the ground with a thud and lay there in the dust.

“So I decided to look into the bestsellers in a way that was encouraged by my friends at Harvard Business School. They teach the case method there, so I decided to get some case.”

“‘Coma’ is ‘Jaws’. ‘Viral’ is ‘Love Story’.”

“Coma” was a successful bestseller, its impact multiplied by the film version, directed by Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”, “Westworld”). Since then, a number of Cook’s more than 30 books have become films or television series.

Cook said he thinks “Viral” also has great cinematic potential: “It will work even better as a movie than it does as a book.”

It’s a scary thought, given the extreme measures its main character ultimately resorts to.

Cook takes words from the screen

Not one to sit by the phone, Cook takes some of his cinema into his own hands. He created his own production company for a series built around two of his audience favorites, Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery. Both are forensic pathologists whose curiosity leads them as much to personal danger as to a startling discovery.

His next book, he revealed, features them as well.

In the meantime, Cook is using his bullying pulpit as a medical professional to point out as many flaws as he sees in the healthcare system. He pokes fun at the laissez-faire approach of Republican lawmakers who say the free market will take care of inequality.

“There is no ‘market’ in medical care,” he scoffed. “It’s not like, if you have an accident, you’re going to say, ‘Which hospital are you taking me to? Let’s see how much it costs compared to this hospital” or “Which one has the best ER ward?'”

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He finds the foray of private equity firms into hospitals and, now, medical practice, disastrous for the public.

“You would say why private equity gets involved in medicine,” he said, “and it comes out when they asked Dillinger, ‘Why are you robbing banks?’ is where the money is.”

The cost to the public, with companies seeking to maximize prices and minimize expenses, has been a calamity.

“The number one source of personal bankruptcy in the United States today is hospital bills,” he said, citing a joint study by researchers from Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School and Ohio University. It puts the medical expense bankruptcy rate at 62%, higher than any other source.

An even more damning statistic: 72% of people who filed for bankruptcy for medical issues actually had medical insurance when their conditions were first treated.

Grassroots concern is essential

But Cook keeps the knife sharp for the drug companies. He has written about them (“Acceptable Risk”, “Mindbend”) and finds their lobbying “much more than you have any idea”. He estimates that almost a million dollars a day is used to influence legislation. (In 2020, pharmaceuticals and health care products spent about $306.23 million on lobbying in the United States, according to the Statistica website.)

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If Cook has enemies in these industries, they are quiet enemies, he said. They wait for all fury to dissipate.

“I’m not surprised that their way of dealing with these kinds of issues is, as Br’er Fox would say, to lay low,” he said. He hopes it won’t work.

“I just hope more people who read my books want to call their reps and complain about it. Because it’s actually tragic.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Contact her at 239-213-6091.