'48 Hours' changes format for report on health care workers and AIDS Show only touches on Almaraz case

January 02, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Viewers may notice something strange about tonight's "48 Hours" broadcast on health care workers with AIDS: CBS News abandons the program's usual format.

Instead of going on-location for two days (in television time) of intense subject coverage, tonight's show (8 p.m., Channel 11) is a series of reports from various cities and without any time-frame. The reports (at least those included in an unfinished preview tape) are grouped around two issues: health care providers with AIDS who keep that information from their patients; and the difficulty AIDS patients have finding doctors and dentists willing to treat them.

Local viewers familiar with the recent controversy surrounding a Johns Hopkins physician who died of AIDS may find something else strange about the broadcast: The producers seem to think viewers won't notice the format change.

For instance, when Dan Rather introduces one segment from Hopkins, he gives the impression that the show will take us inside to the front lines of the medical and ethical battle involving AIDS. But it is

a suggestion that the rest of the show in no way supports.

Rather refers to the controversy set off when Dr. Rudolph Almaraz, a respected cancer surgeon, died of the illness and the hospital sent a letter to more than 2,000 of his patients advising that they consider a blood test for AIDS. The report, which never mentions Almaraz by name, indicates there is no evidence, thus far, that the doctor infected any of his patients.

But that's about it from Baltimore. We get a snippet of videotape showing a doctor on the phone (apparently reassuring a patient of Almaraz that the risk of getting AIDS from him is minimal) and another snippet showing a copying machine printing the letters sent to Almaraz's patients.

Tonight's main stories are from Portland, Ore., Miami and Philadelphia. In the story from Portland, an emergency room physician reveals on-camera that he has had AIDS for the past three years and has been treating patients without telling them. It is his and the hospital's first public admission of his illness. The story from Miami involves lots of blood in a hospital emergency room and a young doctor who puts himself at risk of contracting the AIDS virus while the CBS cameras roll. In Philadelphia, we meet an AIDS patient who was refused dental care.

Pluses? The issues raised in tonight's "48 Hours" are important and in great need of further discussion. The reports on them are personalized and generally engaging.

Minuses? The more sensational aspects of the issues dominate the broadcast. And there is difficulty keeping focus. Are we talking about health care providers with AIDS or patients with AIDS? "48 Hours" should have stayed with the former issue and explored it more fully.

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