Transforming Medical Drama into Health Education


The average American spends one hour every year face-to-face with a health care provider.

That same American spends 104 hours every year face-to-screen watching a Hollywood-created medical drama.

But, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Brian Primack, M.D. Ph.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health (CRMTH). It’s an opportunity, he recently told a crowd of medical students and clinicians.

CRMTH hosted a lecture Tuesday on the Pitt campus by Ryan McGarry, M.D., executive producer of “Code Black,” a hit CBS medical drama that was renewed last week for a second season. Dr. McGarry graduated from Pitt’s School of Medicine in 2009.

“We, as a center, study the influence of media – such as medical dramas – in our lives,” said Dr. Primack, also a practicing physician and assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences. “Sometimes those influences are negative, but other times they’re positive. We’re trying to discover how you can leverage the positive to improve health.”

“Code Black” originated following a documentary by the same name that Dr. McGarry created about Los Angeles County Hospital, which is said to be “America’s busiest Emergency Department.” The television series is fictional but aims to realistically convey the drama of an overwhelmed public hospital.

At the CRMTH lecture, Dr. McGarry presented research on how medical dramas have evolved and the influence they have on public opinion of the medical profession.

In the 1960s, medical dramas portrayed more paternalistic, older doctors as the voice of authority. Now the dramas have younger casts with sexier fictional lives and doctors with a dark side. Still, 69 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of physicians as high or very high.

“Things have changed as far as medical dramas go,” Dr. McGarry said to the crowd of medical professionals gathered at Scaife Hall. “But still, of all genres, the most popular thing that Americans watch in primetime is medical dramas. Americans are very fascinated and hungry for what you all do. They want to see doctors.”

Dr. Primack explained that his team at CRMTH is actively researching how to harness the American trust in doctors and their desire to watch medical dramas to improve health. For example, they’re looking at tweets from viewers during “Code Black” to see how accurate any clinical discussions are and the possibilities for influencing that information.

Social media is where Dr. McGarry hopes to see more doctors communicating. He wants clinicians to take the good publicity that medical dramas give them and then “take back the physician narrative” and talk directly with the public.

“There will always be medical dramas. We know the audience is sophisticated to what is fact and what is fiction, and we know that these shows are boosting a good public perception of doctors,” he said. “So this is our free shot to take that publicity and steer it in a positive, educational direction – it’s something we should take advantage of.”

The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and Health Policy Institute also sponsored the lecture.