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TV Medical Dramas Connect Fiction With Real World - 2002-03-14

Members of the American Medical Association say television shows about doctors help to teach the public about the workings of their profession. The influence of such programs even reaches to medical schools.

From the many movie incarnations of the fictional Doctor Kildare in the 1930s and '40s to television's Marcus Welby in the 1970s, the dedicated doctor is a staple of Hollywood drama.

Today, the hospital series ER is the highest-rated drama on American television.

A recent meeting of the American Medical Association looked at the role of medical fiction on television, through a question-and-answer session with a television producer, a popular actor, and a doctor who is a consultant to Hollywood.

Dr. Richard Corlin is president of the American Medical Association, which invited those people to meet with the doctors and nurses. "There are so many portrayals of medical events on the screen in all kinds of scripts that it's helpful for us to have this connection to them to let them know that we're interested in what they're doing and that we're available to help to the extent that we're wanted," he says. "Obviously those portrayals don't all have to be accurate, but I think the thing's that's important is that they are either accurate or knowingly not accurate."

Dr. Corlin says Hollywood may choose to revive a patient against the medical odds or kill off a character for dramatic reasons. Hypodermic needles may be bigger and scarier than the ones real doctors use and exotic diseases are seen more often on television than in a doctor's office. But the medical community is there to offer help if the director wants to know about actual medical practice.

And more and more, Hollywood wants to get it right. Real life emergency room physician Dr. Mark Morocco began a career as an actor before he went to medical school. Now he is an adviser on two medical series, ER and Third Watch. Dr. Morocco says he is keenly aware of the millions of viewers who tune in each week, whose number includes both doctors and medical students.

"On ER we have four doctors on staff, and two of us are academic physicians who have a real love of the teaching of medicine. And we try very hard to sneak in the sort of things that will be meaningful on a lot of different levels, not only for students and residents and interns but to patients as well," Dr. Morocco explains.

Dr. Morocco says that means conveying accurate information on medical conditions, to the extent it can be done in a one-hour drama. The physician says he and his colleagues draw on their own experiences for ideas that series writers flesh out for television. He says at a hospital where he works, an x-ray revealed that a patient had a gun in his pocket. The incident inspired an episode of ER.

The episode goes like this:

Doctor: "Mrs. Gansley, have you ever been under the care of a psychiatrist?"

Patient: "Yes. Would you like his number? Where did I put it? Give me a second here." (She rummages through purse, pulling out a gun).

Doctor: "Yikes."

Patient: "Nine Millimeter, double action, 13-round clip. A little heavy but lethal."

Doctor: "Would you mind if I gave this to security, just for now?"

Patient: "Not at all. I've still got the Beretta."

Actor Noah Wyle has performed on ER since the series began in 1994, playing the leading role of Dr. John Carter. The actor jokes that people sometimes approach him in the street to talk about medical problems. He says viewers respond to the series because it deals with something that all people confront at some point in their lives. "If you have a lawyer show or a police show, not everybody is going to be in a courtroom, not everybody is going to go to a police precinct. Not everybody is going to go the Oval Office of the White House. Everybody will go to a hospital. Everybody fears going to a hospital," he says.

And the actor says everyone is curious about medical conditions that could affect them or their loved ones.

Doctors say television often does a good job conveying information about public health issues like sexually transmitted diseases. That is thanks largely to the medical advisers who work on the programs, says Samantha Corbin, who co-produces the medical series Crossing Jordan.

Dr. Richard Corlin of the American Medical Association says, just as important for the profession, television dramas convey a positive impression of medical workers, while demystifying medicine for laymen.

"When Marcus Welby was on and even for many, many years afterwards, people came to have a very, very good opinion of a kindly family practitioner from how Robert Young portrayed that person," Dr. Corlin says.

Modern portrayals of doctors tend to have more edge than the actor Robert Young's portrayal of Dr. Welby. Today's medical dramas show more sharply drawn personalities and realistic conflicts among hospital workers. But the medical specialists here say the depiction of these people, with their failings and their struggles, is good for the profession.

One medical student told the conference that she and her fellow students were drawn to medicine by shows like ER. And a medical professor said she sometimes uses the series to start classroom discussions about issues confronting doctors.