Reviving the Medical Reality Genre

Apair of non-fiction TV projects set in hospitals suggests that the nearly dead medical reality genre, which at one time thrived, may be regaining a pulse.

Following the success last year of ABC News' update to its 2000 documentary series Hopkins 24/7, Endemol-owned True Entertainment is working on reviving Trauma: Life in the E.R., the hospital docu-series that ran on TLC from 1997-2002, according to someone familiar with the program. And BET is in the early stages of developing a program focusing on African-American doctors that will most likely be set at a Los Angeles medical school, says a source briefed on the project.

Once a television staple, medical reality shows and documentaries have become all but extinct since a health-care commission made restrictive recommendations about balancing media access and patient privacy. The Joint Commission (formerly known as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, or JCAHO) made a series of suggestions to hospitals on how to deal with the media after the 2000 debut of Hopkins 24/7, which was set at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“One of the things the Joint Commission raised was its concern about the presence of cameras in the emergency room,” says Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and public affairs at Johns Hopkins, who worked with the ABC News teams on Hopkins 24/7 and the 2008 follow-up series Hopkins.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services changed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 2005, instituting new rules that added complications to reality productions in the medical field. Dubbed the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act, the new language established clearer guidelines for patient privacy.

For Hopkins 24/7, ABC shot footage in the emergency room, then sought permission to use it afterward, once patients recovered. “We felt there was a socially useful interest and rationale and defense for allowing limited access to the patients,” Rodgers says of the 2000 series.

The practice stopped after the JCAHO made its recommendations. But the newer Hopkins effectively showed that it was possible to present a compelling docu-series that features both doctors and patients while abiding by HIPAA, setting a precedent for medical shows.

True Entertainment is eyeing Vanderbilt University Hospital as a setting for the new Trauma: Life in the E.R. Still, convincing hospitals to participate in television projects remains challenging, according to Rodgers. She has been approached numerous times by TV outlets looking for access similar to what ABC News got.

Hopkins regularly hosts journalists and television crews for segments, but the access given to ABC News was unusual. Based on the credibility of the journalists and quality of the end product, Rodgers says: “[ABC] wanted to do it right, and were committed to doing it right.”