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Unscripted Doctors and Other Takeaways from "Boston Med"

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, August 4, 2010

ABC's summer docu-series "Boston Med" has quickly caused a stir both in the healthcare community and in my home state of Massachusetts. After a few weeks of telling friends, coworkers, and sources that no, I haven't seen it yet, I finally made some time to watch the first episode. Now, not only am I hooked, but I'm convinced it should be required viewing for any healthcare marketer.

If you're like me and are a little behind on your summer television, "Boston Med" chronicles doctors and patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham & Woman's Hospital, and Children's Hospital Boston. Each episode follows a patient story at each hospital and also tells the back-story of the doctors and clinicians involved.

As a healthcare journalist, the most surprising aspect of the show is the openness of the patients and doctors during shooting—and the hospital leaders for even allowing this show to exist. When conversations about "Boston Med" spring up in the offices of HealthLeaders Media, they largely revolve around how the show is able to film without violating any patient confidentiality. (There's a lot of blurring.)

Whereas some "real life" medical shows feature patient testimonials filmed months after the fact and reenact hospital scenarios, "Boston Med" follows the patients and doctors through each step of their journey in real time. In the first episode we see a surgeon fly to a nearby hospital to harvest donor organs, a surgical team perform two lung transplants with said organs, and a young ER doctor struggle when a patient cannot be revived after going into cardiac arrest. It's as real as real gets.

At first I thought filming this show seemed like a risk for the world-class hospitals involved. Not all outcomes are positive, and a good portion of most episodes focus on disagreements among clinicians. But after watching the first episode, I realized I was wrong.

Medical documentaries, when done right, generate heaps of good publicity. In a world where shows like "Jersey Shore" and "The Bachelorette" are pawned off as "reality," people appreciate the authenticity of programs like "Boston Med." Patients know politics and posturing occur among doctors behind closed doors in every hospital, and it's refreshing to see it on screen. By the end of the episode, I empathized with each physician and truly believed that they always kept the patients' interest in mind.

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