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October 6, 2017

Hollywood often gets health issues wrong. Here are 11 times they got it right.

Daily Briefing

Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S) has unveiled the 2017 winners of the Sentinel Awards, which recognize television programs that depict "exemplary storylines" regarding health, safety, and security.

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How the awards came to be

HH&S, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg Norman Lear Center, has presented the Sentinel Awards since 1999. The awards are sponsored by CDC.

According for Kate Folb, director of HH&S, at the time the awards were launched, it was common for medical advocacy groups to reach out to writers about how to depict a certain medical issue. But those efforts weren't particularly efficient, Folb explained, because various groups were individually "trying to reach the same writers." As a result, CDC teamed up with USC to launch HH&S "as a clearinghouse" for writers to help depict certain medical issues, NPR's "All Things Considered" reports.

Selecting winners

Sentinel Award nominees undergo two rounds of judging. In the first round, topic experts assess the entry for accuracy, including factors such as whether best practices regarding a particular issue are depicted in the show. In the second round, experts in public health, academia, and entertainment industries judge the stories for potential benefit to viewers and entertainment value.

This year's winners

HH&S this year recognized 11 honorees for medical storylines across seven categories:

  • For drama: "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC) episode "Maggie's Mom" on inflammatory breast cancer, and "This is Us" (NBC) episode "Jack Pearson's Son" on mental health;
  • For comedy: "black-ish" (ABC) episode "Sprinkles" on preeclampsia, and "You're the Worst" (FXX) episode "Twenty-Two" on PTSD;
  • For children's programming: "Sesame Street" (HBO) episode "Meet Julia" on autism;
  • For documentary: "Audrie & Daisy" (Netflix) on sexual assault, and "Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric" (National Geographic) on gender identity;
  • For short documentary: "Open Your Eyes" (HBO) on eye health, and "Extremis" (Netflix) on end-of-life care;
  • For talk show: "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" (HBO) episode 86 on opioid misuse; and
  • For unscripted series: "Born This Way" (A&E) episode "Dream Come True" on down syndrome.

Benefits for lay viewers—and medical professionals

According to "All Things Considered," TV depictions of health topics can be informative not only to lay audiences but to medical professionals as well. For instance, a depiction of a safer surgery checklist for a transplant in the show "ER" has provided material for teaching physicians about such protocols, "All Things Considered" reports.

Joe Sachs, an emergency physician and producer on "ER," said, "The intention of the scene was to tell a great story and to show the love" one character had for another. "But as a side effect of being accurate and timely, Atul Gawande was able to use this clip and show it all over the world."

Separately, Gawande, a surgeon and writer for the New Yorker, said, "[The 'ER' clip has been] shown to thousands of surgeons and anesthesiologists at conferences around the world, and more people heard about the checklist by far than from our New England Journal article" on the topic.

Martin Kaplan, director of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, echoed Sachs and Gawande's comments on the power of compelling TV. "TV writers and producers not only entertain audiences, but they affect them as well," Kaplan said. "We know this both from our research, and from stories that viewers tell. These awards recognize the responsible and creative use of that power by television writers and producers" (Thielking, "Morning Rounds," STAT News, 9/27; Hollywood, Health & Society Sentinel Award winners 2017, accessed 9/27; Karr, "All Things Considered," NPR, 8/30).  

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