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Doctors give medical dramas a good bill of health

| Tuesday, March 19, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Recent TV hospital dramas such as "ER" accurately depict modern medicine, but should focus more on current controversies such as insurance and nursing shortages, according to doctors at a panel discussion on how television portrays their profession.

The discussion last week, titled "It Must Be True, I Saw it on TV," came on the last day of the American Medical Association's national leadership conference.

Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical students attended the session. "ER" star Noah Wyle was among a group of TV industry representatives taking part.

Many of the medics praised NBC's "ER" and now-defunct programs such as "St. Elsewhere" in the 1980s and the recent "Chicago Hope" for de-romanticizing the image of doctors as miracle workers — an image created by the 1960s shows "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Dr. Kildare."

In those older shows, "all the medicine happened behind closed doors," said Randolph Smoak, the AMA's former president.

By contrast, today's medical dramas are gritty and gory — unflinchingly depicting frantic surgery, overworked doctors and harsh hospital bureaucracy. And the patient doesn't always survive.

Although such realism may be frightening, Smoak said it helps reduce unrealistic expectations by patients.

However, he suggested the shows should tackle more political topics such as uninsured patients, the bureaucracy of HMOs and a patient's bill of rights.

"Can't you picture an episode where someone gets a prescription from the ER and says, 'Well, doctor, I won't be able to eat next week if I buy your medicine,"' Smoak said. "What kind of powerful message would that carry to the public and the policy-makers of our country?"

Donna Hill Howes, a registered nurse who chaired the panel, urged television shows to pay more attention to nurses. Hospitals across the country have reported that low pay and more varied opportunities for women in medicine have created a nursing shortage.

Mark Morocco, a medical adviser to "ER" and the medical-emergency show "Third Watch," said nurse characters on TV are too often unimportant background figures or sex objects.

He cited NBC's Aaron Spelling-produced hospital show "Nightingales," which spent much of its time "finding a way to get into the nurses' locker room." It was canceled after 12 episodes in 1989.

Many in the audience Tuesday said they were fans of "ER," which has been television's most popular drama for seven years, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Some said the NBC show has a responsibility to educate as well as entertain, and Wyle agreed.

"When we first started, all our technical advisers told us that emergency rooms were the primary source of health care for most Americans," the actor said. "That's changed in recent years, because watching 'ER' has become the primary source of health information. Then people go to the emergency room and compare."

Inaccuracies usually are a result of television's time constraints, said Samantha Corbin, co-executive producer of "Crossing Jordan," a medical-examiner program on NBC.

"Shows have to fudge reality in terms of making this as dramatic as possible and cramming it into a 46-minute episode," she said. "Unfortunately, (in reality) most medical conditions can't be diagnosed, much less cured, in 46 minutes."

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