Many doctors would know of A J Cronin’s novel The citadel. Published in the 1930s, it was to become the first in a literary genre that has humanised doctors and demystified medicine. The book was quickly adapted for the big screen and was rated as one of the better films of the 1930s, picking up four Oscar nominations.
Many novels have followed its successful formula, such as Samuel Shem’s The house of God, which depicts the life of interns, capturing the poor working conditions, lack of sleep, isolation from friends and family, and exacting emotional toll. Interestingly, the reverse perspective is explored in Michael Crichton’s Five patients, which examines the hospital troubles and turmoil of five patients, as seen through the empathetic eyes of a junior doctor.
Many of us will recall television’s earliest forays into medical drama, with Ben Casey and the seminal BBC series Dr Finlay’s casebook, whose very human stories have since morphed into the demanding and enigmatic plots of shows such as House.
Indeed, the past 50 years have seen no less than 45 medical dramas produced for television audiences in the United States and Canada, such as Marcus Welby, M.D., General Hospital and ER; 22 medical dramas in the United Kingdom, such as Doctor Finlay and Doc Martin; and at least 11 in Australia and New Zealand, including A country practice, All Saints and the documentary drama RPA.
These programs have proven to be both compulsive viewing and consistent rating successes, attracting a loyal following and winning many awards. In concert, they have destroyed the somewhat distant and aloof image of doctors by portraying their practitioners as very fallible human beings.
Furthermore, they have served to increase the health literacy of our community. But what is their attraction?
The poet Philip Larkin wrote that: “Life is first boredom, then fear”. These medical dramas are anything but boring — and vicarious fear is eminently tolerable.
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