A Rhetorical Shift in Television Representations of Medicine

Amala Poli // A noticeable discursive turn in attitudes toward the medical enterprise has captured different television and talk shows. A recent Netflix show Diagnosis, already reviewed in Synapsis, is a documentary take on medical mysteries that are crowd-sourced for various diagnoses, inviting the participation of experts and patients alike in solving what appear to be difficult symptomatic presentations without apparent or immediate diagnoses.[1]

The show captures the nuances of navigating the complex healthcare system in the United States. At the heart of several current representations of the US healthcare system in the media, the economics of care is the most apparent and irresolvable of several issues. The fifteenth season of Grey’s Anatomy draws attention to some pressing debates about medical insurance in the United States and accessibility of care, showing concerned doctors trapped in their capacity to offer care and resolving their helplessness by forging medical insurance claims. In a situation where a young girl needs surgery that is not covered by her insurance, the doctor(s) risk their medical license(s) in order to support her care. Without comment on the dramatization of the issue itself, this instance is yet another in a representation of the pressing issues of medical insurance and the challenge it poses about accessibility of care, pushing viewers to occupy the grey ethical area that asks the question, what does the individual practitioner of medicine do in the face of a systemic push toward helplessness? When the ethics of providing medical care are conflicted such that care must be denied due to the patient’s incapacity to afford it, we see pressure on the individual doctor in Grey’s Anatomy to come up with a solution. The representation is part of a turn in television shows that problematizes several of the healthcare concerns of modern day medical practice.

In its August 18 episode entitled ‘Bias in Medicine,’ John Oliver’s award-winning talk show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver draws attention to compelling issues such as inherent beliefs about associations of pain tolerance with race and misconceptions about the extent of pain accompanied by tendencies to disbelieve reports of pain, especially from Black patients. Wanda Sykes states in her guest appearance on the episode, “Black people, we don’t even get our hands on opioids. They don’t even give them to us. I had a double mastectomy, you know what they sent my black ass home with? Ibu-f-ing-profen” (Sykes, 2019). Among other biases, Oliver also draws attention to the presentation of different symptoms in women during cardiac arrests that are often misattributed to heartburn or considered ‘imaginary,’ causing a likelihood wherein women are likely to be misdiagnosed during a heart attack almost seven times more than men. What is most terrifying about this bias is that women are often sent home during a cardiac arrest in distress due to the prevalent belief that they are chronic complainers. In consultation with Wanda Sykes and Larry David, the episode includes a list of steps the medical industry could take to combat bias in medicine, including standardized care, non-bias training for doctors and medical students that actively addresses these existing biases, and a deliberate shift to increasing diversity in the medical field.

What interests me here is this shift in the discourse toward medicine today, as a practice that is constantly evolving and being challenged to ask questions of itself. A growing imperative for awareness, as well as a demand for explanations, is on the rise for the existence of gendered and racial biases in the digital age. Lack of information is no longer an acceptable reason for these damaging perceptions that lead to unspoken discrimination, endurance of unnecessary pain, and loss of lives. Perhaps the rhetorical shift of perceptions about our current medical practices and systemic values will generate enough outrage among viewers that can be turned into pragmatic motions toward addressing some of these issues. The challenge exists for healthcare systems today to take notice of several inherent injustices that have gone unchecked.  The rhetoric of television shows today is not only an indication of the growing impatience toward these unchecked biases and perceptions but also a call to policymakers and governments to rise to the occasion by creating accessibility and equality through inclusive and diverse healthcare. This process starts with diversity at the grassroots level in administrative and executive capacities, without succumbing to tokenism.

 Works Cited

“What I Did For Love.” Grey’s Anatomy: The Fifteenth Season, written by Mark Driscoll, directed by Jesse Williams, Shondaland Production Company and Entertainment One Television, 2019.

“Bias in Medicine.” Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, written and hosted by John Oliver, HBO, 2019.

Diagnosis, written by Lisa Sanders, Netflix, 2019.

Image Source

Penn Medicine News, “2019 Healthcare Equality Index.” July 01, 2019, pennmedicine.org. [2]

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