The Hollywood Medical Reporter – Medics in the Media

In 1984 Vicks aired a commercial for their new Formula 44 cough syrup. The spokesperson, Dr. Rick Webber gave a glowing recommendation for the product. The reason this commercial is so memorable: there was no Dr. Rick Webber.

It was actually an actor, Chris Robinson, who played Dr. Rick Webber on the daytime drama General Hospital. The commercial opened with the now famous line: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

This was not the first, and certainly will not be the last, example of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for a medical product. In fact, DTC ads have been among the most controversial, and impactful, by-products of the media’s reach.

The images of medical professionals have been used to sell products for years. Some of the most notorious examples of this practice have been the use of doctors (or the images of doctors) in cigarette advertisements. The 1950 Camel commercial “What Cigarette Do you Smoke, Doctor?” contends a survey showing that doctors of all stripes preferred Camels. We are shown images of physicians in surgery, in front of a hospital, at their desks… all puffing away happily. And then, as if to drive home the point, we are shown a checklist of all medical professionals – surgeons, diagnosticians, general practitioners, and so on.

In 1970, the government passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act after seeing the overwhelming statistics that showed cigarette advertisements significantly increased cigarettes sales and, with that, disease and death.

DTC advertisements are, by definition, blatant in their intent and targeted influence. It may therefore be difficult to accuse them of subliminal manipulation. However, there has been a distinct shift in how television influences the medical world. Today it is the indirect advertisements that are just as influential – if not more so – than your basic commercial.

Television and movie narratives have a unique capability to connect with viewers on a powerful level. As such, dramatic depictions of medical scenarios can offer an even stronger effect on audiences than documentaries and medical journals. They are designed to evoke emotional and sensory responses on a visceral, even unconscious level.

Examples of subtle medical/scientific inaccuracies, intentional or not, in film and television are endless. One of the most impactful is the depiction of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). While so many film and television shows use CPR with immediate great success, in reality, only 10-21% of people survive past hospital discharge after being revived with CPR.

Medical shows frequently have indirect consumer advertisements, typically when a character, usually a doctor, gives a not so subtle shout out for a particular medication (see my review for Black Box “Kiss the Sky” episode for a specific example). Some programs go as far as to have “doctors” give detailed arguments for why their choice of prescription drug is the best.

While I obviously wag my finger at those types of manipulations, I am not quite as irked as when a story’s core relies on medical inaccuracies. I hate myself for using the following example with this particular show (which I love)… but I feel I must.

Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing portrayed the character of President Bartlet, (Martin Sheen) as having multiple sclerosis (MS). To its credit, the show did certainly attempt to not simply use the topic of MS as a mere plot device. In a 2000 episode, the President, with a fever of 103, passes out, breaking a priceless glass pitcher.

In reality, fever is not a true risk for those with MS. Nevertheless, in this dramatic scene, the President’s wife, physician and staff rush to the President’s aid and we are told how life threatening a fever can be for someone with MS. The creation of mood and depiction of character and illness is dramatically vivid. As such, the issues discussed in the scene (i.e the nature and symptoms of MS) can unconsciously resonate as quite truthful to the viewer, despite the fact that they have been funneled through a creative lens that has distorted medical truths.

Countless other television shows and films employ this dramatic tactic: explicitly depicting medical symptoms and/or procedures to give the impression of truthfulness. They use gory details to make it look real, honest and accurate. Then they throw in facts, statistics and socioeconomic issues about the illness, to make it appear as if the explanation is as “truthful” as the bloody depiction of the illness or treatment. This technique heightens the verisimilitude of the drama, and shapes it as not only factual, but objective.

Some argue that endeavors to incorporate health messages, subtle or otherwise, are intended to positively educate and inform. Leaving aside the history of Hollywood’s objectives (like a bear is constantly looking for its next meal, some would argue that Hollywood is constantly looking for its next dollar), one thing is incontestable: the entertainment world’s use of the medical field has little monitoring or oversight.

The unfortunate byproduct has resulted in a misinformed society.

Like it or not, television is arguably the primary source for public health education today. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey of prime time television viewers and found 52% trusted medical/health information they receive from prime time programming to be accurate. One in four (26%) said that television shows were among their top three sources for health/medical information. 90% claimed to learn something about diseases, which in turn, affected their health care decisions. A staggering 48% claimed that a television show about a health issue would affect their real life medical decisions in one or more ways; this included a willingness to relate their TV-acquired knowledge to others.

These statistics are alarming, considering how drama tends to trump accuracy in the entertainment media. One of the ways to change negative impact that inaccurate messages give is forums like this, to make viewers more sensitive to how they are being manipulated.

Image via gpointstudio / Shutterstock.

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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