What to make of TV medical dramas
The doctors portrayed on TV are often a mixed bag — from helpful to nonsensical
When I was a kid in the 1960s, years before I went to medical school, I was addicted to TV medical dramas. Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey were similar; both had young physicians railing against the system, under the guidance of older and wiser mentors. It wasn’t the medicine but good stories about patients on the brink of life and death that attracted me and even inspired me to become a doctor.
When I was in medical school in the 1970s, a classmate recommended I watch Emergency! — a show about paramedics that was so accurate that it helped me, and many of my colleagues, to remember the correct doses of life-saving medications such as lidocaine and epinephrine. The ‘ER’ years Then there was ER. Created by physician Michael Crichton, ER was one of the first shows that attempted to give viewers an almost hyperrealistic portrayal of a busy, urban emergency department by total immersion.
The sets were designed to enable the camera to move from ambulance bay to trauma resuscitation room in one tracking shot — giving the viewer a real-time sense of ER medicine at its most frenetic. The pacing and music kept the tension high. The characters wore authentic scrub suits; they held and used surgical instruments like doctors because physicians acted as medical advisers and taught them how to do so.
ER was also one of the first scripted medical dramas in which the physicians and nurses spoke the argot or secret language of medical jargon. You believed that Doug Ross — played by George Clooney — was a pediatric ER physician because he talked like one. Like a medical student thrown into the deep end of emergency medicine, viewers were expected to pick things up as they invested time in watching the show.
And did they ever! For much of the 15-year run of ER, the show was in the Top 10 on TV.
Too much drama More recently, shows like The Night Shift, Remedy and Code Black — which debuted this fall — have followed the same template to ratings success.
But I gave up on shows like these. The action and drama are non-stop; you’d think doctors are only worth watching when we’re cracking open chests and squeezing hearts. The characters are pitted against one other in open warfare in ways that would make it nearly impossible to work together. As someone who has examined modern medical culture, I think this is the worst thing about medical dramas. They convey an outsider’s sense of how health professionals should be instead of how they really are — ordinary human beings with a lot of insecurities who try and fail like everyone else.
The Knick Recently, I found a medical show that entertains me although it doesn’t look or feel at all like a day at the office. It’s called The Knick, short for the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City. The show is available on HBO Canada; Season 2 premieres Oct. 16.
Unlike modern medical procedurals, The Knickis set in the year1900 — making it seem familiar yet strange. With crude X-rays instead of exquisite MRIs, these doctors are literally groping in the dark to make the diagnosis. Without antibiotics, blood transfusions and modern surgical skill, young patients die with alarming frequency.
It gets even better. The Knick’s Dr. John Thackery — a brilliant surgeon played by Clive Owen — is an egomaniac who performs futile experimental operations before rapt colleagues seated in the operating room gallery. Thackery is also a cocaine addict with lousy veins whose supply has run out. The characters include an even more brilliant Harvardschooled and Paris-trained surgeon whose career path is blocked because he is black. The guy who runs the hospital is skimming funds and selling dead bodies to pay off serious gambling debts.
Cocaine addiction among physicians is a historical fact born out of ignorance of the drug’s habit-forming properties; so is racial bigotry.
But who cares? Because I don’t know medicine circa 1900, I’m quite happy to suspend my disbelief and leave the challenge of plausibility to Dr. Stanley Burns, the show’s medical adviser. His medical archive has inspired everything from set design to some of the show’s most entertaining storylines.
Doctors make mistakes in the same way we all do. That’s why I find the portrayal of physicians as flawed professionals refreshing. It’s a form of escape that I relish. Dr. Brian Goldman hosts White Coat, Black Art on CBC Radio One, and is the author of The Secret Language of Doctors. He is an emergency physician and assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s department of family and community medicine. Doctors’ Notes is a weekly column by members of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. Email email@example.com
ER, with Julianna Marguiles and George Clooney, had medical advisers behind the scenes.