Brownlee, Shannon

views updated

Brownlee, Shannon


Married; children: one son. Education: M.S.


Home—Annapolis, MD. Office—New America Foundation, 1630 Connecticut Ave., N.W., 7th Fl., Washington, DC 20009. Agent—Jay Mandel, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer and journalist. New America Foundation, Washington, DC, senior fellow. Formerly worked as a staff writer at Discover magazine and as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.


American Institute of Physics Award, 1987, for "Waiting for the Big One"; General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Prize for International Journalism, 1990, for "Cancer's Bad Seeds"; Sigma Tau Foundation Prize for Journalism, 1992, for "Alzheimer's: Is There Hope?"; Sigma Delta Chi Award, Society of Professional Journalists, 1999, for "The Quality of Mercy"; Cindy Award, 2000, for the video "Vive La Difference!"; Science in Society Award, National Association of Science Writers, 2003, for "The Big Fat Question"; Victor Cohn Price for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting, Council for the Advancement of Science Writers, 2003, for body of work; Association of Health Care Journalists Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, 2004, for "Doctors without Borders."


Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to anthologies, including The Real State of the Union and The New Science Journalists. Contributor to Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, New Republic, Slate, Time, Discover, Business Week, Washington Monthly, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Wilson Quarterly.


Shannon Brownlee earned her master's degree in biology before beginning her career as a science writer and journalist. She worked for Discover magazine and U.S. News & World Report before joining the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC, multidisciplinary think tank.

Having contributed to several prominent periodicals throughout her career, as well as to the anthologies The Real State of the Union and The New Science Journalists, Brownlee published her first full-length work in 2007. Brownlee's Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer is a popular science/journalistic exposé that has garnered a great deal of media attention.

Brownlee's work draws upon several medical studies indicating that not only are Americans overtreated medically, but that this extraneous treatment can be potentially harmful (let alone expensive). Indeed, Brownlee cites statistics showing that Medicare patients with higher medical expenses were not found to be significantly healthier than those with lower expenses. Brownlee blames the overtreatment of Americans on several factors, such as pharmaceutical companies' marketing tactics and for-profit reimbursement system that rewards physicians and hospitals for the volume of care they deliver, not its value. Brownlee even goes so far as to suggest solutions. Her main solution is modeled on the success of the Veterans Health Administration, which went from near extinction to success in less than ten years by implementing a managed care system. The quality of their health care was even given some of the highest national rankings available.

Critics have roundly praised the book, not only for its persuasive arguments, but also for offering realistic solutions. According to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, Brownlee references "reams of data to back up her contention" that American health-care's largest fault lies in unnecessary medical care. Indeed, the contributor went on to call Overtreated "a bombshell of a book" that is required "reading for consumers, their political representatives and all those White House contenders." Donna Chavez, writing in Booklist, echoed this assessment. Chavez stated that Brownlee "sheds light" on the state of the American health-care system "with the skill of a crack prosecuting attorney." Chavez also applauded the author because she "posits models that could be adapted" to address the situation. Although a Publishers Weekly critic felt that "many of Brownlee's points have been much covered," the critic concluded that "her incisiveness and proposed solution can add to the health care debate."

Brownlee, in an interview with Nancy Shute in U.S. News & World Report, discussed her book and offered basic advice to health-care patients. Indeed, Brownlee noted that "evidence says the more physicians involved in your care … the more likely the care will be uncoordinated." Miscommunications or lack of communication between a patient's doctors can be potentially deadly. Discussing her focus on the Veterans Health Administration as a model for change, Brownlee told Shute: "What surprised me is that when you're looking for the best-quality healthcare, it's at the Veterans Health Administration and Kaiser Permanente and Group Health of Seattle. It turns out that managed care, in the sense of coordinated care, is the best." Brownlee also told Shute that much common medical care has not been scientifically proven to be effective, commenting that "little medical care has any evidence to back it up." She called this fact a "monster surprise." Given the current state of the American health-care system, Brownlee advised patients to "ask people to wash their hands before they touch the patient. This simple procedure is one of the most important things for preventing infection. And it's the one that's most often forgotten."

Other critics focused on Brownlee's overall argument, concluding, as a HealthFacts contributor did, that the author "provides a public service by calling attention to this important research which is even more relevant today" than ever before. The HealthFacts contributor also stated that while the author acknowledges that "malpractice fears cause doctors to order more tests … to Brownlee the more powerful reason doctors and hospitals overtreat is they are paid more for doing more." The contributor also noted that "Brownlee takes consumers to task for contributing to overtreatment by making irrational demands for drugs advertised on TV." In conclusion, the contributor, like other critics, agreed that Brownlee "presents solutions that will go a long way toward fixing our dysfunctional system."

Gregory M. Lamb, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, said that "most Americans know that the healthcare crisis in the United States is a two-headed monster," citing the fact that "medical care is too expensive. And, largely because it's so expensive, that care doesn't reach millions of people who are poor or uninsured." But, Lamb stated, "what few may realize is that the crisis has an ugly third face: Many Americans receive too much medical care." Lamb, like Brownlee, agreed that "excess" treatments are "not only … often ineffective and waste hundreds of billions of dollars," but "also sometimes harm the patients they are intending to help." Lamb then went on to call these statements "the fascinating, counter-intuitive, and potentially revolutionary conclusion" of Brownlee's Overtreated.



Booklist, August 1, 2007, Donna Chavez, review of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, p. 15.

British Medical Journal, January 12, 2008, "What Is Wrong with U.S. Health Care," p. 99.

Choice, February 1, 2008, B.A. D'Anna, review of Overtreated, p. 1009.

Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 2008, Gregory M. Lamb, "When a Pound of Cure Is Too Much," p. 14.

HealthFacts, March 1, 2008, review of Overtreated, p. 4.

Journal of the American Medical Association, November 7, 2007, Nortin M. Hadler, review of Overtreated, p. 2071.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2007, review of Overtreated.

Library Journal, August 1, 2007, Kathy Arsenault, review of Overtreated, p. 109.

Publishers Weekly, July 23, 2007, review of Overtreated, p. 58.

U.S. News & World Report, September 26, 2007, Nancy Shute, "Why Less Medical Treatment May Be Good for You."


National Association of Science Writers Web site, (May 20, 2008), author profile.

New America Foundation Web site, (May 20, 2008), author profile.

About this article

Brownlee, Shannon

Updated About content Print Article