We've all watched Dr. Meredith Grey save a patient using nothing more than duct tape and a gum wrapper, or Dr. Gregory House diagnose in a baby a disease previously seen only in house cats. And we wondered "Can that really happen?" Television series and movies alike are increasingly sophisticated in their medical technology and terminology and in the way they portray the physical demands of sports because many employ or consult experts to make sure they're getting it right. Accuracy is important because media is influential; a study released this week found that an episode of ER dealing with an overweight teen with high blood pressure improved viewers' nutritional knowledge and eating habits.
U.S. News & World Report sat down with two doctors and two athletic trainers to explore how realistically medicine and sports are depicted on the big and small screens: Michael Pearl, a Los Angeles-based orthopedic surgeon who's been an adviser on ER; Jennifer Taginski, an athletic trainer who just finished working on a football movie with Reneé Zellweger and George Clooney; Robert Klapper, an orthopedic surgeon in L.A. who's worked on Bones and ER; and Brian Nguyen, head athletic trainer and cast assistant to Mark Wahlberg, actor and executive producer of HBO's hit Entourage.
Are TV shows and movies accurate in their portrayal of doctors and medicine?
Robert Klapper: Much more now than before. When ER first started, they said "orthostatic" surgery when they meant "arthroscopic" surgery. They're more sophisticated now.
Michael Pearl: But on Grey's Anatomy they still don't wear masks when they're scrubbing in for surgery.
What's an example of a movie or TV show getting it totally wrong?
MP: Years ago, I was at a party and saw a friend from the movie business, and he said, "I need a disease that will kill a 19-year-old, but won't make her lose her hair or anything." I told him "ganglionic neuroblastoma," which is a benign but inoperable tumor—I'd just seen an 18-year-old who had one in her chest. The movie became Autumn in New York, starring Winona Ryder and Richard Gere, and for some reason, Richard Gere didn't like pronouncing "ganglionic," so they shortened it to "neuroblastoma," which is a cancerous tumor of the nervous system found mostly in children. In the movie, they say "Neuroblastoma—it's not cancer," when in fact it is. I got hate mail.
Brian and Jennifer, you work on sports movies and advise on stunts, training, and injuries. Are all those game scenes real?
Brian Nguyen: They're choreographed, but it's still football. Take after take, they hit as hard as they can, so there's still an element of danger. I tell them, "You can do this many hits" before it's bad for the lead actor. On Invincible, they wanted to do this over/under hit, where you tackle someone's legs and they go end over end. I told them that was a one-take thing.
Jennifer Taginski: I'm working on a period piece, Leatherheads, about football in the 1920s. We have to do things safely even without modern equipment.
Do you notice changes in how the public perceives doctors according to how they're portrayed on TV?
MP: Oh yes. ER changed how people thought about doctors. When it started, it was really the nadir of how we were seen—we were perceived as money-grubbing technicians. But ER really brought out the social responsibility of the profession.
Have any of you caught the scriptwriting bug?
RK: Oh yes. The greatest thing about Seabiscuit and A Beautiful Mind was that they were true stories. Gavril Ilizarov was a Russian orthopedist who worked for years in Siberia and invented an apparatus for lengthening and repairing bones. I'm going to do that movie!
BN: I asked Mark Wahlberg how he came up with Entourage, and he said it was based on his own life. I've got a lot of good locker room stories!
My mother absolutely loves House. I can't believe that doctor gets away with being so rude.
RK: We have what's called a "well-being" committee at Cedars-Sinai [that keeps doctors on their best behavior]. House would be sent straight to the well-being committee.