The Hollywood Medical Reporter – To Care or Not to Care?




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The Hollywood Medical Reporter’s purpose is to examine the influence that film and television has had, and continues to have, on the medical conscious of society. It will do so using a perspective of medical proficiency and media expertise. The first question you may ask is: why?

In my introductory post, I touched on the fact that the industry is filled with screenwriters who write about doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical conditions. Most of these writers (both aspiring and professional) have not gone to medical school, and do not have available adequate consultation by professionals. As a result, these writers can – and frequently do – fill our television and movie screens, as well as our minds, with medical inaccuracies.

But why should we care?

To be fair, the stuff we’re talking about is intended to be, first and foremost, entertainment. Or at least that is the typical heading given. I would guess that, when asked the question, “Do you care or do you not care about medical inaccuracies in film and television?” the average viewer would respond with a resounding “hell no!”

After all, one of the primary reasons people turn to film and television is to escape reality, particularly realities involving their own medical conditions. Frequently, illness and treatments cause true misery. The entertainment media has always been a vehicle to help people escape from reality. (Just look at the very healthy movie ticket sales during the Great Depression!)

There are those who argue that certain channels of media, such as news articles or even current affair shows on television, may affect their audience’s beliefs and actions relating to health care and medicine… But how can a sitcom or TV drama have the same affect? People know not to take them seriously, don’t they?

However, this argument presupposes that viewers are able to distinguish fact from fiction in whatever they may be watching.

Let me be clear: to say that many of us lack this ability is not a statement about our intelligence. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of what the entertainment media has been expert at since its inception: the business of affecting what we think and how we feel.

If presented with a scene where a surgeon asks for a certain tool in the middle of surgery, then stops, pulls off his surgical mask and kisses the nurse beside him, most would instinctively perceive this as unrealistic. However, few of us would ever stop to think whether or not the surgical tool the surgeon has asked for is the right tool to use. Or if it’s a real tool to begin with. Or if the type of surgery being conducted is accurately portrayed.

While most viewers are not watching a show to learn about such things, whether they like it or not, they will leave it with certain pieces of information that have been internalized on conscious and/or subconscious levels.

This is simply how the brain works. And it’s how entertainment works.

In order to be effective on any level, a film or television show must resonate with viewers. Even in the most fantastical of fictional universes, there is an allusion of truth that must be created so viewers can relate and continue to watch. Despite being set “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars continues to connect with audiences. This is because of its ability to insert relatable, real life human emotions into a world filled with death stars, self-aware robots and a wise, green Furbee/Pikachu who speaks in anastrophe.

The familiar, timeless battle between good and evil and the painful relationship of a father abandoning his son are examples of relatable conflicts that serve as a bridge from reality to a fictional world in the Star Wars films. They use pieces of reality to seduce you into a willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, they manipulate you into believing things – at least temporarily – that you know are not to be believed. But this is a fantasy, and the filmmakers and the audiences are all in on the game.

Many, if not most, medical dramas make no such effort to distinguish itself as fiction. On the contrary, they use the “reality” of relatable medical conditions to give weight to the drama.

In 2002, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation issued a report that attempted to quantify the effect of the television drama ER’s health content. More than 35,000 regular ER viewers were surveyed between March 1997 and April 2000. The survey found that a bit more than half said they spoke with family and friends about health issues based on how those issues were portrayed on the show. One-third said that the show actually influenced their choices relating to their own, or their family’s health care decisions.

These disturbing findings highlight the power and influence that popular entertainments can have on society.

That’s why this topic is important. That’s why we need to look more carefully at how health care is being portrayed, and what influence it may have on us.

And so, to quote the bard: Medical accuracy in media…

…To care or not to care? That is the question.

Yes.

That is the answer.

I’ll go into further detail about this next week. And I promise… no more lame Shakespeare references.

Image via Fer Gregory / Shutterstock.

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer and consultant, specializing in the film and television industry. After graduating from Hampshire College, Daliah worked in project development at Unique Features, a company founded by Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye (The Lord of The Rings). As a screenwriting consultant, Daliah has worked with is Pulitzer Prize Winner Joseph J. Ellis, writing a feature film treatment based on his historical novel, “Founding Brother’s: The Revolutionary Generation”. She has also worked for companies including Film Independent, Salty Features, and RPM Int., along with sharing her expertise with numerous screenwriting competitions.
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