It is a favourite pastime of anyone who works in healthcare to scoff at the mistakes we see when medicine is portrayed on film. From the back-to-front chest X-ray on Scrubs to the miraculous success rates of chest compressions in soaps we love to mock. However, for the last four years I have been working with various TV programmes to try to inject a degree of realism without dampening the drama.
This started with Holby City when I helped out on set, making sure that operating scenes looked realistic and that the actors could pass off as surgeons. This was my introduction to the tension between realism and plot. Being a medical drama, Holby had the budget and resources to try and get things right, but even they couldn’t keep viewers interested if they showed a lovely routine list of day cases where nothing goes wrong!
Holby led to me being approached by Eastenders, which was a different type of work. With 6–8 million viewers every week, this is a show with massive reach. They have a surprising number of storylines involving medicine, ranging from characters with chronic health problems, through to the massive set piece car crashes and explosions. Even with the minor stuff, when they get it wrong they face a slew of complaints from the public and charities. Often Eastenders will want me to come up with injuries or illnesses that fit a story arc. For example, they will want someone stabbed, look like they are going to die, but then get better and be out of the hospital in seven days. This is normally straightforward, apart from making sure they aren’t reusing stuff from previous years!
Working on longer running storylines is more interesting, the most exciting of which was Phil Mitchell’s liver transplant story on Eastenders. They came to me wanting a way to rejuvenate Phil, who had become a belligerent drunk who had lost his sparkle. I suggested a storyline that took him into liver failure and then showed a long climb back to health, with a liver transplant as the final redemption. However, this was a story fraught with public health issues. It was well established that when the famous liver transplant recipient and footballer George Best started drinking again organ donation rates fell. (more…)