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Medical boo-boos

/ 05:05 AM February 11, 2019

Medical errors in shows can be terribly funny. We had a prime example recently when a clip from a local TV show circulated online, showing a doctor character, grim-faced, explaining that a patient had sustained trauma and the doctor wasn’t sure if they could “save the appendix,” an organ which, when damaged, ought to be excised rather than repaired anyway.

Another show portrayed a woman suffocating a man to death… but the man had already been outfitted with an endotracheal tube, meaning his airway was secure and he couldn’t be harmed with a suffocating pillow. Another show confused a mechanical ventilator with an anesthesia machine. My personal favorite medical boo-boo on local TV happened when one show used a Foley catheter, which is usually used for the urinary tract, as a nasogastric tube, which is inserted via the nose to either decompress the stomach or to facilitate feeding.

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Doctors joke that they would be happy to serve as a consultant for these shows just for the satisfaction of seeing something done correctly, and to avoid seeing yet another medical contraption somewhere it isn’t supposed to be. This isn’t to belittle the difficult creative work that goes into these shows. Everyone makes mistakes, and somewhere down the production line, from the writers’ desk to the actual set, medical errors can spring. Even big-budget shows like the American “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor” make some glaring errors. No show is a hundred percent accurate, one hundred percent of the time.

On the one hand, the mistakes can be deeply funny. But recent events should make those in entertainment aware of the media’s power when it comes to delivering messages related to healthcare. It’s a hard, sobering reality to realize that many Filipinos may never see a medical professional in their lifetime. For many, the only health information they have comes from their local barangay health workers or community center, from traditional health practices, from hearsay, or from the television. This is why shows like “Salamat, Dok” and other medical programs are a venue for some truly important public service and this is also why it would help for networks to be careful about medical beliefs they can start or perpetuate.

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If only Foley catheters as nasogastric tubes were the worst of the problems. I can’t even count the number of times we encouraged and offered the option of intubation to a patient’s family when it was medically necessary, only to be faced with the conviction that “kapag natubuhan, mamamatay na (once intubated, a patient will die)” — one of many beliefs perpetuated by poorly thought-out television shows. Chemotherapy is often shown as the end of the line, with patients depicted as invariably bald, helpless and weak, regardless of the disease or type of chemo.

Sometimes it isn’t even about life or death situations, but about perpetuating roles and stigmas on healthcare. Nurses, often exclusively played by women, are seen as subservient and secondary to doctors. Doctors are in turn shown as hot-shots and often portrayed doing critical roles that are actually the terrain of nursing. Mental illness, too, suffers from poor portrayals and clumsy scripts. Who can forget primetime shows portraying the hateful, plotting villainess as mentally ill, and that show her being thrown into a “mental hospital” as just deserts?

The Filipino anti-vaxxer, as I wrote about last week, isn’t to blame for the country’s measles problem; the deeper burden lies among those who have made a widespread impact of misinformation within a population already quite deprived of health resources. It wouldn’t do to get worked up over inaccuracies on TV because most of the time these are pretty harmless, but maybe creative teams can sit down with medical consultants to work out how to help, rather than harm. Maybe it’s time for Filipino TV to have a male nurse in a prominent role, or a positive portrayal of mental illness, or parent characters vaccinating their children on time. With a large audience comes great responsibility.

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