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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Spring 1995, Vol.15, No.2
Thumbs Up for TV's Newest Dose of Medicine, "ER"

Chicago Hope...
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Chicago Hope?

By Kris Worrell

Every Thursday at 10 p.m., the lounge at Bard Hall is packed with first-year students who abandon their books to crowd onto the couches, tables, and floor for an hour in front of the big-screen television. When the lights go down, they are reminded, Hollywood style, of why they enrolled in medical school in the first place. For these devoted fans, "ER" is like a weekly shot of adrenaline.

"I think it's fabulous," says Stu Levine'98. "I love the intensity of it."

"It's so clinically relevant," says Leland Gershell'98, a devoted fan. "It gives you an inkling of what's to come."

The students like the show so much they sent a fan letter to the president of NBC Entertainment praising the characters and medical content. "There is no other show that captivates us like this one," wrote Francine Wiest, president of the first-year class. "Even the night before our major exam, the avid followers tuned in." More than 60 students signed the letter.

Dr. Herb Chase, associate professor of clinical medicine and course director of "Science Basic to the Practice of Medicine," is leveraging his students' enthusiasm for the program by offering an elective in which students choose and analyze an illness portrayed on "ER."

"It's a natural tendency for first-year medical students to watch any TV show with a doctor in it," says Dr. Chase, who admits he watched "Marcus Welby, M.D." religiously. "They use it as a spring board for discussion. As long as you're going to be entertained, you may as well learn something about medicine."

Fourth-year student Ed Boyer casts a more discerning eye on the popular medical show than some of his younger colleagues. "I have no doubt that the first years would fall in love with the show because it offers what they hope a life in medicine will be like," he says. "'ER' to the first years is a beacon: The patients come in with problems, you solve the problems. The farther you go in school, you have a clearer sense of what would be indicated or permitted. We have a little bit more realistic idea of what could be."

Mr. Boyer, who has applied for a residency in emergency medicine, says he and his fellow fourth-year students relate best to John Carter, the medical student character. "We can see him get confused on the floor and we've been confused on the floor," he says, recalling an episode where the hapless student spilled a tray of urine samples on himself. "It was sort of like, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

While all this praise and devotion is good news for "ER" and NBC, the prognosis for CBS's rival medical show, "Chicago Hope," is not so rosy. Ironically, the same students who rabidly devour "ER" each week were enlisted by CBS to screen the pilot episode of "Chicago Hope." Their comments were largely unfavorable.

"Chicago Hope is about the angst of white, Jewish males having mid-life crises," says Ms. Wiest. "We just can't relate."

"Chicago Hope is hopeless," says Dr. Chase. "They are the sickest people on TV, and they are the doctors! There's an incredible amount of psychological baggage. I stopped watching."

Cynthia DeVivo'97 watches "ER" regularly but admits to watching "Chicago Hope" a few times with her parents. "I like it because I think the medical content is more accurate and there is more of it."

Accuracy is one thing students look for from the shows. And while many agree the medical content is usually on target, not everything on TV is true to life, they say.

"ER" seems too smooth, says Brigid Humes'97, who hosts a group watch in her Tower II apartment each week. "It's television. Nothing's perfect like that." She and her friends have been particularly baffled by the fact that Carter, a bumbling medical student, wears a long coat like the doctors. At P&S, "when you're a student, you only wear a short coat. It really defines you as someone who's learning vs. someone who knows what they're doing."

Dr. Chase is amused and sometimes amazed at the portrayal of the doctors on "ER." "They talk to each other in condescending ways," he says. "They're mean to their patients, they're mean to each other. In my 20-plus years in medicine I have rarely, if ever, heard the staff talk to each other or patients in that manner. Quite the contrary, people who get into the medical field thrive on serving humanity."

"I would hope doctors in real life would be a little more professional," agrees Mark Perry'98, smiling. "But that wouldn't be drama."

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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