TV Doctor Dramas Tackle COVID-19: Are They Getting It Right?

Mary Duffy

December 16, 2020

Most TV doctor dramas don't receive widespread praise for their medical accuracy. This year, however, the pandemic has injected an inescapable dose of reality into the programming.

As Ellen Pompeo, the star of Grey's Anatomy, recently told Deadline, "I think we have a responsibility to really show what these healthcare workers have been going through." Experts say the fictional programs could represent the most significant exposure that millions of people have into the lives and experiences of doctors. More than that, they say the shows may provide more easily digestible and approachable messages about COVID-19.

The applause given to healthcare workers in the early days of the pandemic is now seen less often than signs of increasing political division and tension between medical professionals and the general public. Although TV doctor dramas may not be imparting specific scientific information, writers and producers point to the shows' potential to provide a more cohesive narrative about the pandemic, with storylines that resonate on a more emotional level.

That's the hope of Daniela Lamas, MD, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who is a staff writer for The Resident. She co-wrote the season premiere this year and sees an opportunity for doctor-based dramas to play a pivotal role. She believes these shows "have a chance of making a difference with the public understanding of, and ultimately acceptance of, current COVID-19 related guidelines."

To this point, finding the right pandemic messaging has proven challenging, says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Stanford University and a TV producer. "We've begged people just to stand on the side of science and evidence and leave the politics and the partisan beliefs out of it." He believes that where those requests have failed, narrative fiction may succeed. "I think medical shows can thread the needle of telling the real, unpoliticized story of COVID-19 while raising awareness about what's really happening on the front lines in a way that's relatable."

With that in mind, here is a look at how the experience of frontline workers is being portrayed, and how public health messages are being communicated, in four of the most highly rated doctor-based TV programs.

The Good Doctor (ABC, Mondays at 10 pm EST)

When it returned on November 2, The Good Doctor had a wordy title card. It explained that, although the episode to follow was a "made-up story," it was about "a real battle still being fought." It concluded with a call to action, stating "Honor the heroes: doctors, nurses and other frontline workers, many of whom have given their lives. Do your part. Wear a mask."

Taking place in a fictional San Jose, California hospital, The Good Doctor premiere was set at the end of February 2020. Although the designated COVID ward in the episode shows healthcare workers in full PPE, patients and healthcare workers in other parts of the hospital are mask-less, which soon has dramatic repercussions. A man with GI symptoms — an apparent bout of diverticulitis — is wheeled down the hall and sent for an abdominal CT scan. This offers a glimpse of what really ails him: COVID-19. In his unmasked trip through the hospital, he has spread the virus, infecting a veteran nurse, among others.

In a recent interview with The Wrap, David Shore, the creator and executive producer of The Good Doctor, explained his show's approach to covering the pandemic. "It was about the human challenges that doctors are facing and that patients are facing," he said.

Key among those challenges is dealing with the forced separation from loved ones. This includes healthcare workers quarantining to keep their families safe, something that Stanford's Patel says is particularly resonant. "I've had plenty of colleagues, including myself, who have been afraid to come home after certain shifts because they may have been exposed and they don't want to make their families sick."

The isolation of patients is also dramatized. A young pregnant woman with asthma is put on a ventilator before her baby is delivered and then whisked away in an incubator. As doctors struggle with a viable treatment plan, a middle-aged man teeters near death, communicating with his wife via FaceTime. When a beloved nurse approaches death, her son's connection is only virtual, as hospital staff in full PPE are crowded in the hallway.

Although real-life versions of these stories may have been reported in text or news segments, seeing them play out dramatically may more fully bring home the heartbreaking reality, Patel says. "I don't think that human story can adequately be told in a 15-second news clip, so it's powerful that these dramas can go into more depth, portraying what doctors are going through on a day by-day basis."

Here in the real world, COVID-19 hasn't magically disappeared. On The Good Doctor, however, the pandemic only lasts through the two-part season premiere. The third episode opens with actor Freddie Highmore on camera, out of character, saying the near future setting of the show "portrays our hope for the future — a future where no one will have to wear a mask, or take other steps to stay safe from COVID."

Chicago Med (NBC, Wednesdays at 8 pm EST)

Chicago Med returned with episodes set 6 months into the pandemic, with a focus on many of the underlying social issues recently brought to light, including the racial disparities in healthcare and outcomes. The hospital is radically different. Ultraviolet light-blasting robots roam the halls. The institution's president works remotely, appearing only on Zoom. Doctors and nurses hold virtual candles at a vigil to honor the patients they've lost.

Although the emotionally and physically drained healthcare workers do follow a slew of protocols, when the scene shifts to the ER or a non-COVID unit, there is not a mask in sight: not on the healthcare workers, and not on the patients. That's problematic, says Patel, "In the past we've never held medical dramas to a really high standard of accuracy. We've said 'That's entertainment, people watch it for escapism.' " He says that the stakes are too high now to ignore these simple guidelines.

"We have such a divided culture in terms of the pandemic response that people might cherry pick anything they see just to support their own beliefs. As ludicrous as it sounds, even having a medical drama portray irresponsible behavior could be risky," he warns.

Whereas The Good Doctor made their mask-based message explicit, Patel says the implications of Chicago Med's failure to follow guidelines is far more problematic. "It adds to a dangerous narrative that COVID is being overblown or that masking is unnecessary."

Chicago Med is now on break until January, when the pandemic storyline will continue.

Grey's Anatomy (ABC, Thursdays at 8 pm EST)

This year's season premiere of Grey's Anatomy was set in April. As Pompeo's character Dr Meredith Grey says, the staff of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital is "smack dab in the middle of it, under the wave, trying not to drown." The doctors and nurses are adjusting to a hospital setting transformed by new protocols, dealing with PPE shortages, and trying to keep despair at bay while they lose patient after patient. By the end of the second episode, Meredith Grey contracts COVID-19 and falls unconscious, with visions of being on a beach with her late husband.

In explaining the decision to infect their lead character, showrunner Krista Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter , "Over 1700 healthcare workers in the US have died of COVID to date. Many thousands more have been infected. Healthcare workers are on the front lines of this crisis, living through a war for which they were not trained. We saw an opportunity to dramatize and illuminate their plight through the incredibly well-loved and well-known character of Meredith Grey."

The season's third episode opens with Dr Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) putting on her mask, dispensing hand sanitizer, and getting her temperature taken. The voice of Meredith Grey repeats advice straight from government guidelines in a soothing voiceover: "Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet apart at all times. Work from home. Only leave the house for essential services. And at times we even need you to isolate from the people you love."

As perhaps the best known current medical drama, Grey's Anatomy is not only modeling best practices for masking and social distancing, Patel says it is also hitting the right notes about what he calls the "humanitarian crisis" affecting healthcare workers on the front lines. He explains that this depiction offers a powerful counterweight to the political divide among the general public. "It's gut wrenching to think about the fact that you're putting yourself —and your colleagues are putting themselves — at risk. You're working long hours, under stress, while the public hears accusations that you're lying and politicians question your integrity. It takes away from the actual everyday struggles that people are going through."

The third episode of the season ends with Dr Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr) addressing a new crop of residents. His speech also describes the role that many believe these shows can play: "People are looking to us to guide them through it…We'll be okay. We will get through this together."

The Resident (Fox, Tuesdays at 8 pm EST)

Dramatizing the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime was a challenge, says The Resident's staff writer Lamas. "When we began to write in June, it was an unknown future, the spring surge was waning, we didn't know if this would be over by the time we aired." Despite the uncertainty, Lamas says the team felt a responsibility. "We all felt strongly we had to tell this story. We were all shaken by it." 

As someone on the front lines of COVID-19, Lamas personally knows the danger involved. "I had never been in a war or been with Doctors Without Borders, so this was new to me." Although the stress and fears weighed heavily on her, when it came time to write the script, Lamas says, "We needed to strike a balance of reflecting the reality of putting our characters in peril — as doctors and nurses were — and offering hope." Lamas says that theme of hope will play out when The Resident returns in January.

The show will also focus on the inequities and inefficiencies of the current healthcare system, says Lamas. "We've always been a show that rips the veil from issues like how business interests can be corrupting, and we will be pivoting to stories about the aftermath of COVID." She says the show will highlight the need for changes in how hospitals serve people.

Striking the Right Balance

While production was paused, all doctor dramas had to determine how much COVID-19 would be a focus for their upcoming seasons. Speaking at Variety's Power of Women virtual conference, Grey's Anatomy's Vernoff explained how she was initially reticent to plan an entire TV season around the pandemic. She said that the show's writers quickly convinced her. "For the biggest medical show to ignore the biggest medical story of the century would be irresponsible."

That was reinforced when writers met with members of the medical community, as they do before every season. Only this year their stories were very different. Vernoff said the challenge was asking "How do we tell this story this very painful, brutal story that has hit our medical community so intensely? How do we do that and create some escapism and some romance?"

Vernoff may have been speaking about her show, but her comments fit all TV doctor dramas returning in this climate. All of the programs are attempting to document the strain that comes with working in overcrowded hospitals, facing shortages of PPE, struggling with the fear of infecting loved ones, and enduring the pain of patients dying alone. The crisis is rife with drama and the chance to impress for audiences to commiserate with characters and build up empathy.

Unlike public health messages stating what to do or what to refrain from, the dramas actually demonstrate behaviors for audiences, scene after scene. The messages are wrapped in each show's unique brand of drama. Producers and writers say that it is a fine line their shows must now walk: Entertain, keep the audience coming back, but do so responsibly.

Mary Duffy is a freelance writer, producer, and editor who has worked in television, radio, magazines, and the web. The former editor-in-chief of Women's Sports & Fitness magazine, she has written about health topics for The New York Times, Elle, Self, Health, and many other publications.

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