In Depth

Capturing the Reality of TV's Doctors

Series Aim to Ease Fears by Showing What Happens in O.R.

About 20 years ago a popular cough medicine commercial that ran on television featured the line, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

Today it is the real-life physician who is more likely to appear on the small screen as cameras follow medical professionals every step of the way, from consulting with patients—with the individual’s express permission, of course—to performing surgery and post-surgical care.

For better or worse, medical reality programming is becoming a source of information that sometimes substitutes for traditional health journalism. Reality-show cameras often capture the emotional along with the informational aspects of the doctor-patient relationship and bring a flood of awareness of patient concerns and new treatment procedures.

Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Marc Mani has appeared on programs on the Learning Channel and Discovery Health Channel, as well as on segments on entertainment news and talk shows.

But he says the mark of success in real life is having a practice made up of patients who were referred by other satisfied patients.

Dr. Mani, who specializes in facial rejuvenation and breast revision surgery, is board-certified by two major plastic surgery societies in the field. He graduated from Harvard University and received his medical school and residency training at Baylor College of Medicine.

“I’m comfortable operating on camera as long as they respect the sterile field,” said Dr. Mani. “I see it as an opportunity to educate the public to know the ins and outs and the main benefits of aesthetic surgery. Television exposes the reality of surgery, and the real upshot is that people have been encouraged. By and large, people are depicted going through a process that makes them happy, and that’s the result.”

“Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills” is a 10-part documentary/reality show produced by New York Times Television that followed Dr. Mani and two physician colleagues as they worked with various patients.

“The goal was to make it like a fly on the wall that would come into the practice,” Dr. Mani said. “They tried to make it a real documentary. It had a fairly high budget per show. There were two camera crews in the office at all times. The patients that signed on were comfortable, and once they met the production crew, then they were really enthusiastic and willing to do it to share their experience.”

For the physicians, preparing for the production was intense.

“The producers would have us sit down on a special stage three to four hours every week and ask us questions about the procedures and delve into the psychology of why patients wanted it. They’re real journalists who have been in wartime situations. They’re not fluff media.”

For the doctors, it was an opportunity to discuss the psychological as well as the medical aspects of plastic surgery.

“It’s not just the patient choosing the doctor,” said Dr. Mani. “If you don’t feel like a person is a good candidate, the worst thing you can do is operate. You learn that in residency; it gets driven home and you have a gut feeling about it. You try to recognize body disorders, and if you have any doubts you make sure they go to see a professional. It happens to everyone; you turn away patients quite frequently if you’re doing your job right.”

Dr. Mani also is featured on Discovery Health Channel’s “Plastic Surgery: Before and After” and has done multiple segments on “Extra.”

Dr. Paul Dougherty, an ophthalmologic surgeon specializing in LASIK vision correction surgery, runs up against patient fears frequently in his Southern California practice and on television.

“The fear greatly outstrips reality, and that’s why I’m here, to take away the fear,” said Dr. Dougherty, who serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Refractive Surgery. He has also been featured as the LASIK expert on TLC’s “10 Years Younger,” a mildly irreverent makeover show based on a British program that uses a team of professionals to make participants look younger without cosmetic surgery.

“I liked [the show] from the standpoint of education. It’s good from a public health standpoint,” Dr. Dougherty said. “It goes through the whole process of people wearing glasses or contacts, and showed them how they would be able to see better. It was pretty realistic, and we showed the risks. Most of the patients were easy to deal with, but one was unrealistic, and nervous about surgery. I discouraged it, but she insisted—but ended up not being on the show.”

Dr. Dougherty was one of the first ophthalmologists to get LASIK on his own eyes when he had the procedure done 10 years ago. He screened 12 to 15 patients on the program and treated five or six, turning down people who weren’t good candidates.

“The only difference between this and real life is the cameras in the interviews before and after, and the cameras in the operating room. I’ve been outfitted with a camera in my microscope to show exactly what was going on,” he said. “Because all of my surgeries were on closed-circuit TV anyway, operating on camera the first time didn’t bother me. But of course I made sure it wasn’t a distraction to my patients, or I wouldn’t do it.”

The doctor, who has performed more than 17,000 eye surgeries at his offices in Hancock Park, Camarillo and Santa Barbara, Calif., also is participating in the Style Network’s upcoming season of “Modern Beauty.” Last season the show featured segments with plastic surgeons talking about different techniques to improve appearance.

“Essentially, I focus on LASIK and do some shows on implantable contact lenses for people who are candidates for it,” Dr. Dougherty said. “It’s educational, with serious discussion about the reality of cosmetic procedures. There’s no makeover team; it’s either technology- or personality-based.”

One patient was 26-year-old actor T.J. Miller (“Cloverfield”), who wanted to get out of contact lenses because they created problems for him when he was on set.

As Dr. Dougherty summed up the goal of his on-air medical experience: “The most important thing is well-educated patients who know the risks and benefits.”

That can translate to the viewing audience, influencing their decision-making process on treatment methodology.