Medicine in the Media

FScreen Shot 2014-07-30 at 3.49.54 PMirst-year David Grosset muses over his love for past and present medical television and film, focusing on the recent film, ‘Contagion’.

Medical School is completely ruining my love for medical television.

First and foremost, I have no time for so much television anymore. But even when I do get the time to catch an episode of House, I find myself unable to focus on the comic brilliance of the doctors, but instead find myself criticising them.  Let’s be honest, would Dr Gregory House ever pass a communication station on an OSPE? And what’s all this breaking into houses about?

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 3.50.04 PMIt’s sad that I have become this way, because I have always loved medicine in television and film. It certainly played a part in my pursuit in medicine. It’s not as if I answered this when asked why I wanted to study the subject at my interview, but it was definitely at the back of my mind somewhere.

I mean, who can’t watch Diagnosis Murder and think, ‘I wish I had the ability to solve crimes with medical knowledge like Dick Van Dyke’? And if watching You Are What You Eat presenter, Dr Gillian McKeith, poking around in faeces while telling someone else that they are disgusting doesn’t excite you, then I’m not sure what will.


But my love for medical television began a long time before Dr Gillian McKeith came onto the scene. The first medical show I ever watched was a little-known show called Doogie Howser MD, starring a 16 year- old Neil Patrick Harris (now notoriously playing Barney in How I Met Your Mother) about a genius sixteen year-old working as a fully-fledged doctor, and who had to balance his medical career with normal teenage problems.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 3.50.16 PM

The plot is ridiculous. Doogie Howser gets a perfect score on his SAT at the age of six, completes high school in nine weeks aged nine and at age fourteen, he is the youngest licensed doctor in the country. As a newspaper states in the programme, he cannot buy alcohol, but he can prescribe drugs.

But there was something romantic and amazing about Doogie Howser’s story; his search for acceptance in an adult-populated world that had no time for children. I loved the moment when, after a patient informed Doogie he was a kid, he replied “True, but I’m also a genius. If you have a problem with that I can get you someone who’s older but not as smart as me.” And who can forget the episode where Doogie returned to his old school to teach his former colleagues (a lot of them older than himself) about sex education?

Scrubs was the next show to capture my imagination. Every week there was hilarious comedy but also a heartwarming moral. I often ask doctors jokingly if their real life jobs are anything like an episode of Scrubs… to which they uniformly answer, ‘no’. Even so, I don’t think it’s a fools dream to aim to be like Dr John Dorian or Dr Christopher Turk (or for the more authoritarian among us, Dr Perry Cox).

So many different shows have come and gone throughout the years, some notable mentions being Embarrassing Bodies, Grey’s Anatomy, and my personal favourite, The Operation: Live Surgery on Channel 4.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 3.50.24 PMBut in this article I am going to focus on a medical film. Contagion has just passed through theatres and focuses on the spread of a lethal virus. It features an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishbourne, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard. The film focuses not only on various doctors as they try to deal with the spread of the virus, but also looks at a wider-spread societal response to such a disaster: people begin looting pharmaceutical shops for medicine, while other characters try to profit off the viral-spread.

With Steven Soderbergh (director of Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven) at the helm, I knew I was in for a well-made thriller, and he does not disappoint. Once again Soderbergh proves his ability to follow multiple characters through a shared scenario and the film does not suffer for not having a primary protagonist. The acting is strong (Kate Winslet on particular form in a genre she does not usually delve into), while themes such as fear and escalation are explored thoroughly (especially through Jude Law’s scare-mongering Twitter-based journalist).

In some ways, Contagion was not what I had expected. Previous medical films that I have seen, such as 1990s Flatliners (a must-see for all medical students) and 2008’s Pathology (which ironically has put me off Pathology for life) suffer huge holes in medical logic and accuracy, and I expected the same of Contagion. These medical mistakes, I surmised, would allow me to have a lot to talk about in this article. Imagine my shock, therefore, when Gwyneth Paltrow dies within the first five minutes. I think that was when I realised this was a film that wanted to be taken seriously. So instead of pointing out the gaping holes in medical logic (not that I, a medical student for all of three months, would be capable of this), I instead found myself jumping up whenever a medical term came up that I recognised.

When Kate Winslet’s character, for example – a worker for the Centre of Disease Control – explains that fomite transmission occurs when a virus spreads through inanimate objects, I turned to my friend and said smugly, ‘Already knew that’.

My friend got his own back later, though. As the characters in the film look at the structure of the virus and notice the glycoproteins around the outside, I said to my friend, ‘That’s a mixture of carbohydrate and protein’, to which he replied, ‘I know – we did that in second year biology’.

Other accurate medical facts that came up but I did not know about before watching the film were things like the R-Nought. Apparently this is the basic reproduction number of a disease, which is essentially the number of secondary cases caused by an initial case of the disease. Another interesting idea was how before researchers can study a virus, they need to figure out how to grow it in cell cultures in the lab, without the virus destroying all the cells.

All quite interesting, although perhaps not quite as entertaining as the last virus movie I saw, 1995’s Outbreak, in which killing the virus somehow involved Dustin Hoffman jumping from helicopters and walking in slow-motion away from explosions.

So if you are willing to sacrifice medical accuracy for drama, perhaps Outbreak is the film for you.

On the other hand, if you are getting to that stage where, like me, you cannot stand the inaccuracies of some medical shows and you can’t help but cringe when you see someone taking a carotid pulse without first finding the crico-thyroid membrane, then perhaps Contagion is the film for you. I guess if you want an excuse to break from your lecture notes and textbooks for an hour and a half, it’s the movie to watch, since you will actually be doing some pretty intense revision from Dr Winnie Dhaliwal’s virus lectures. Leisure time and learning medicine rolled into one, and you can’t complain much about that.


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