Public health gets prime-time play

Health & Fitness

October 17, 2004|By Garret Condon | Garret Condon,Hartford Courant

In the premiere episode of NBC's new drama Medical Investigation, Dr. Stephen Connor, played by actor Neal McDonough, is the head of a disease-tracking team from the National Institutes of Health. He is whisked away from his son's Little League game in a government helicopter so he and his crew can stalk a mysterious ailment that has made a dozen New Yorkers critically ill and has also turned them blue.

Never mind that the real-life models for these disease detectives work for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Epidemic Intelligence Service, not the National Institutes of Health. Forget that EIS doesn't own a helicopter.

Overlook the fact that federal health authorities can't -- by law -- barge into cities and states and take over health investigations. Let it pass when the feds break into private property to check out suspect food. That's show biz.

The point is that the new show is giving public health some prime-time respect.

The heroic healers of such shows as ER have been a TV staple for decades, and they have been joined by fictional coroners and medical examiners. But public health -- the usually sedate and behind-the-scenes health-care field that monitors, prevents and controls diseases in populations -- has never really clicked as the stuff of network dramas.

"If this program is done well, it has the potential to elevate the public's understanding of what public health does," said William Faraclas, professor and chairman of the public health department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The truth is that much of what public health is really about doesn't make great TV. Health education is vital, for example, but it's no car chase. The work of tracking illnesses among groups of people -- epidemiology -- often is more about analyzing data than dropping from a chopper. Prevention strategies -- from vaccines to fluoridated drinking water -- are essential to keeping most of us healthy, but it's hard to imagine channel surfers sticking around to watch kids get their shots.

If there were hurt feelings at the CDC over the "NIH" label, they have apparently healed. "Our main focus right now is just making sure that all the public health and health information is accurate," said Kathryn Harben, senior public affairs specialist at the CDC.

The show also is working with Dr. Donald Francis, a 21-year CDC veteran who now works with a private foundation to get vaccines to the developing world. Francis is checking for accuracy and helping writers unearth promising story material from the CDC's files.

The premiere (and pilot) episode of Medical Investigation is loosely based on a real New York outbreak from 1944 that was made famous by New Yorker magazine writer Berton Roueche. There are countless such accounts of epidemics that are full of danger and intrigue, said Francis, but few have made it to either TV or the movie house.

Faraclas said that the attacks of 9 / 11 and later anthrax mailings have undoubtedly made the TV audience more receptive to the germ-tracker genre.

"I think people have been very worried about threats to their health, and they've paid attention," he said.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


Medical Investigation airs on Fridays at 10 p.m on NBC, Channel 11 in Baltimore.

The show's Web site, www.nbc. com / Medical_Investigation / , has links to the federal Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.

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