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THE UNREAL WORLD

Bona fide 'Doctors' adds depth, details to medical drama

September 08, 2008|Marc Siegel | Special to The Times

"The Doctors," CBS, premiering Sept. 8.

Health information has exploded in the media and on the Internet, much of it lacking context and not vetted for accuracy. Millions of Americans learn about medicine from fictional TV shows such as "House," "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy," but these shows sometimes sacrifice reality for dramatic appeal.

"The Doctors," a new TV talk show that premieres this week with practicing physicians as hosts, hopes to bridge that gap -- delivering accurate health information without sacrificing entertainment value. The hosts are Travis Stork, an emergency room physician; Lisa Masterson, an obstetrician; Jim Sears, a pediatrician; and Andrew Ordon, a plastic surgeon. Topics outside the hosts' areas of expertise, such as the rare Rasputin encephalitis (a condition in which the two sides of the brain don't interact) warrant visits from outside experts -- in this case, the chief of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"I hope this show will raise the bar in terms of patient expectation and help to inform real-life doctor-patient interactions," executive producer Jay McGraw says. In that respect, "very real doctors responding with real answers to real situations is an improvement over shows like 'House.' "

Primary host Stork, seen before on "The Bachelor," has more star appeal than your usual E.R. physician, but Stork says he's trying "to educate viewers to make them feel more interested in their health so that maybe one day I won't have to see them in the E.R."

Of course, a televised show on healthcare cannot easily preserve anonymity and patient privacy and thus is naturally tilted toward voyeurism and exhibitionism.

So how well can the lofty goals be accomplished?

The show clearly emphasizes real health information (calcium decreases menstrual cramps; eating small, frequent meals instead of a few larger ones and increasing lean body mass revs metabolism; bags under your eyes are often due to tiny pockets of fat; 44% of Americans have trouble sleeping and one-fifth are using sleep aids).

The first episode includes fairly mainstream segments on a face lift with an apparently rapid healing time, a birth simulator that teaches a pregnant woman and her partner what to expect during delivery, and age-progression software that allows a 38-year-old obese smoker to see what he might eventually look like if he doesn't change his habits.

Then there's the considerably less common eyelash transplant, an ultrasound performed on a 56-year-old pregnant surrogate carrying her daughter's triplets, and the kind of snappy advice that works on TV but not necessarily in real life.

In an early episode, Sears, a pediatrician in Capistrano Beach, makes a house call to a family with a 5-year-old daughter having difficulty going to sleep at night. The segment begins in the family's home, where Sears counsels the parents and the child, Joelle, on behavior modification techniques, including "bedtime tickets" for a limited number of questions, hugs and times she can leave the room before mandatory sleep time. Sears' methods include a timer and a checklist, and the parents come on the show several days later to report the results.

The parents aren't completely satisfied, and the on-air exchange between Joelle's parents and Sears makes for believable television. It's also effectively coupled with the fact that 15 million American children are sleep-deprived and that this chronic problem interferes with learning, growth and development and has been linked to aggressive behavior and binge eating.

Similarly, co-host and obstetrician-gynecologist Masterson provides useful health tips even as she is performing an on-air 4-D ultrasound on Jackie, the 56-year-old surrogate who has been impregnated with her daughter's eggs.

"The Doctors" is not immune to the media's tendency to focus on the bizarre twists and the improbable cases. But Masterson uses the case as a jumping-off point to examine more common health issues. In another part of the show, she derides the routine harvesting of eggs from young women without considering their discomfort and potential long-term health risks. A self-described women's health advocate, she tries to work ethics discussions into the show while using it as a vehicle to "reach out to patients more in a way that will empower them."

On another episode, a strange case is made more relevant when Ordon, the show's plastic surgeon, tells a teen who received liposuction at age 12 that she never would have gotten that procedure in his office. It is an important message: Surgery is not always necessary or endorsed by a surgeon.

Ultimately, "The Doctors" is a refreshing improvement over the inaccuracies often found in drama-driven fictional shows. But there is still plenty of room for a caring, knowledgeable physician in a real doctor's office.

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Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and an associate professor of medicine at New York University's School of Medicine. He is also the author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear." In The Unreal World, he explains the medical facts behind the media fiction. He can be reached at marc@doctorsiegel.com.

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