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Calling Dr. Kildare

Medical-drama characters may have evolved from saintly to sexy, but at least one aspect of these shows has remained constant: the will to get the medicine accurate.

Winter 2007
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Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare

© 1978 David Sutton

Forty-five years ago, the television series Dr. Kildare introduced a genre-the medical drama-and the first physician-hero to the American viewer. Medical-drama characters may have evolved from saintly to sexy, but at least one aspect of these shows has remained constant: Health care professionals have tried to ensure the accuracy of the medicine being portrayed.

Richard Chamberlain, who played Dr. Kildare, recalls receiving a medical education of sorts. “I had to learn to handle all kinds of paraphernalia,” he says, and he remembers being shown how to listen to a heartbeat with a stethoscope and administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He also observed open-heart surgery and accompanied doctors on rounds at UCLA Medical Center.

The producers of Dr. Kildare, wanting art to at least approximate life, could turn to the Physicians’ Advisory Committee for Radio, Television and Motion Pictures, a group created by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1955. During almost four decades-it disbanded in the early 1990s-the committee helped establish TV doctors as credible characters.

Even today, the public takes its medical shows seriously. A 2000 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of the Americans who regularly watch prime-time TV said they counted on medical dramas to present accurate health information. And a study published in the journal Health Affairs in 2001 revealed that nearly 15% of survey respondents said they had contacted a physician about an ailment based on what they had seen on ER.

Writers today still attempt to create medically accurate dialogue, and technical advisers teach cast members how to wield instruments. But that doesn’t stop producers from fudging inconvenient details such as letting actors scrub for an operation without face masks and neatly resolving each story at the end of an episode, says Chris Hutson, a registered nurse who was a technical adviser on the 1960s show Ben Casey. “Most patients,” Hutson notes, “are cured at the end of the hour.”

Still, a medical drama is nothing without the drama, and most viewers probably expect fictional doctor shows to take some artistic license. For former AMA president Edward Hill, a bigger problem is with a new genre of “extreme makeover” medical reality programs. Hill is concerned that they encourage unrealistic expectations and minimize the seriousness and risks of many treatments. “In these shows, the reality is that everything doesn’t come out perfectly,” he says. 

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