Primary care physicians are negatively portrayed in the media

Does it really make sense for a neurosurgeon to be quoted in a news story about a new treatment for diabetes or prevention of obesity? Some news reporters think so, leaving primary care physicians frustrated at the media’s lack of understanding about the wide range of expertise they practice on a daily basis. In both news and entertainment media, seeking out and representing primary care expertise seems to be the last priority. These popular misconceptions now challenge family physicians to become role models and a source of information to the media, general public and especially to patients in need of primary care.

Recognized as small town heroes and role models, family physicians have carried the lion’s share of responsibility in their communities because of their comprehensive range of expertise. From treating broken bones to delivering babies, entire communities admire them for a strong work ethic and their inspirational effect on society. However, despite the positive impact of family physicians nationwide, many individuals form their strongest impressions of primary care through entertainment media.

The media influences public views and behavior with the help of popular public figures in various fields of specialty. One example is CNN’s selection of Sanjay Gupta, M.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine, a medical correspondent who discusses straightforward primary care and public health topics, but rarely on topics of neurosurgery. Another example is cardiothoracic surgeon and host of the popular Dr. Oz show, Mehmet Cengiz Oz, M.D., who discusses many primary care topics, such as migraines, cancer screening, exercise and nutrition, but not cardiothoracic surgery. By choosing subspecialist’s to discuss these topics, rather than their specialty, the news media indirectly suggests that a specialist is better qualified to speak on primary care, instead of an actual primary care physician!

While media gives weight to the importance of specialists such as neurosurgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons, primary care physicians are negatively portrayed. A good example was the television series Becker, where the lead character, Dr. John Becker, a primary care physician played by actor Ted Danson, was described as “a twice-divorced cynical doctor who is always annoyed by his patients, co-workers and friends. He is in trouble with the IRS and believes all dwarfs are bad luck!”

As a result many of us in primary care were happy to see the end of this show in 2004.

Previous generations grew up admiring the general internist on Dr. Kildare, while the TV show Marcus Welby, M.D. focused on a family physician. In contrast, note the surplus of pathologists in the trilogy of CSI, NCIS and Cold Case series shows. The main character on House is an infectious disease specialist, while Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy residents train in general surgery.

Changing the perception and role of family physicians in mainstream media requires a multi-tiered approach. One suggestion to remedy this issue is by using entertainment-education, the incorporation of informative messages into entertaining media. For example, an interested coalition of family physicians could partner with an organization such as PCI-Media Impact, a leader in entertainment-education programming, to encourage collaboration between primary care associations and media professionals such as scriptwriters and television show producers.

By approaching the issue this way, we can create believable, likable characters for prime time television that highlight the importance of family physicians and emphasize their important role in preventing disease and maintaining the health of their patients. This will lead to more equitable representation of family physicians and develop or adapt characters in popular TV programming to increase attraction to the field of primary care.

Michael O’Connor of University of Washington School of Medicine made an interesting discovery on how medical media hype can affect medical students.  In his article, “The Role of the Television Drama ‘ER’ in Medical Student Life,” published in JAMA (1998), O’Connor concluded that “medical students reactions to televised medical dramas like ‘ER’ suggest that they may incorporate the attitudes and beliefs of physicians on television much the same way they acquire the qualities and behaviors of physicians through their experiences in patient care.”

When the media influences the medical community to this extent, family physicians must become proactive in speaking up. Specialists like Dr. Gupta and Dr. Oz have made great strides in this direction. It’s time for family physicians to take their cues and rise up to become leaders who can positively impact the thoughts and actions of the public and their colleagues in the medical community with the help and cooperation of the media.

Trishul Reddy is Chief Resident, Department of Family Medicine, East Tennessee State University.

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