In Depth

'The Doctors': Responsibility to Inform

‘Dr. Phil’ Spin-Off Enlightens Viewers Using Real-Life Cases

Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for CBS Television Distribution, says the company’s new medical talk show is “not so much journalism as personal information in an entertaining format.”

But executive producer Jay McGraw and host Travis Stork, M.D., say they take their responsibility for the show very seriously.

“The Doctors,” a weekday strip set to launch this fall, will feature a team of medical professionals: an obstetrician/gynecologist, a pediatrician, a plastic surgeon and a marriage and family therapist. They’re joined by Dr. Stork, who in addition to having been “The Bachelor” during that reality show’s eighth season is a bona fide emergency room doctor.

“It’s just a different way to approach health care,” Ms. Wood said. “More like a patient, which is this case happens to be the viewer.”

Andrew Holtz, an independent health care journalist and author of “The Medical Science of ‘House, M.D.,’” said “The Doctors” is “a hazardous area to wade into, because people take these shows very seriously.

“They do need to be very careful,” he said, “because it’s clear from a lot of research on television viewing that people learn from these shows. All shows have a responsibility, knowing that viewers will hear that information and act on it.”

“The Doctors” will air midmorning in most areas of the country. “It’s a medically based show. It’s not a Q&A, it’s not a procedural—those are what most medical shows on TV are,” Mr. McGraw said. “It’s an entertainment show with real people, showing real situations in an in-depth way. We don’t want to have an inconsumable amount of information, but we do want to make sure people walk away better informed than they came.”

Mr. McGraw has some experience in the area: He’s the son of “Dr. Phil” star Phil McGraw, from which “The Doctors” was spun off, and has been executive producer or co-executive producer on seven of his father’s prime-time specials on CBS.

Although Mr. McGraw “chose doctors that really brought something to the table, who … get along well as a group,” according to Ms. Wood, there are some signs of disagreement among the medical professionals even before the show makes its debut. That might make for healthier and more interesting broadcasts, according to Dr. Stork.

“The Doctors” panel members have been making regular appearances on “Dr. Phil” to promote their show. A question arose from a woman in the audience recently as to whether a new birth control pill, which “stops your period for a year,” would be safe. The show’s resident OB/GYN, Dr. Lisa Masterson, “thought it would probably be OK,” said Dr. Stork, “and I thought ‘Well, wait a minute.’ I’m an ER doctor, so I’m not going to be prescribing a lot of birth control, but I do have an opinion as to what’s effective and safe.”

So do other experts in the field of women’s hormones, and many of those experts don’t agree either. In May 2003, a report issued in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society stated that “a lifetime of exposure to estrogen” might be “useful in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia”; less than a month later, the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that estrogen therapy can “double the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia in postmenopausal women.”

Nobody’s suggesting that birth control for young women is interchangeable with hormone therapy for women who are past their child-bearing years, but there are no long-term studies showing the safety of a product designed to interrupt the menstrual cycle of a young woman for a year. “Medicine is an art, not a science,” Dr. Stork said. “There’s no such thing as an absolute certainty, and we’ve agreed to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The producers of the show are well aware of the impact “The Doctors” could have on viewers.

“If you break it down,” Mr. McGraw said, “health is the single biggest need in people’s lives. One of the things we all looked at is that we have an amazing platform here, in a way that could change things, change people’s lives, but only if we’re acting responsibly.”

“We are trying to see the viewer as a patient and as a person,” Ms. Wood said. “It’s a way to bring the viewer closer to medicine in a very personal way, like a daily personal visit with [a doctor who has] the medical information you’re looking for. It’s the one thing everyone can relate to, because let’s face it, everyone’s going to be a patient at some point in life.”

The influence of shows such as “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and other procedurals is well-documented. According to the ScriptDoctor, Mr. Holtz’s column for Oncology Times, a CDC hotline in 2001 reported a huge spike in calls, “more than 5,300 attempts, after a character in the soap opera ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ displayed the hotline number as part of an AIDS storyline.”

“Entertainment television seems to be particularly suited to addressing disparities in health knowledge and behavior,” Mr. Holtz wrote in Oncology Times. He told TelevisionWeek, “Even if you give full disclosure, in the real world, people do apply that information.”

In mounting “The Doctors,” Ms. Wood said, “It’s the same standard we try to follow for all our shows. … We want to keep it entertaining without being sensationalist, and we want it to be fair and accurate. Certainly this is a broader scope than any of the others [Ms. Wood also oversaw development of “The Insider,” “Rachael Ray” and “Dr. Phil”], but we’ve used ‘Dr. Phil’ as a benchmark; he’s dealing with issues of mental health five days a week.”

The show will tape in Southern California, where alternative medicine is widely practiced and where medical facilities such as UCLA and Kaiser try to work with patients who prefer Eastern or other alternative forms of health care. Mr. McGraw said the show will try to highlight some of those treatments where applicable.

“You know the expression, ‘Better living through chemistry’? I think it’s ‘Better living through knowledge,’” he said. “There are non-medical treatments that can cure. Just because a pill is a cure for something doesn’t mean it’s the only cure.”

Mr. McGraw, who earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University, added, “In law school they didn’t teach us everything about the law. They taught us where to find information about the law, and that’s what we want. We want people to be able to go to their doctors and talk about all of the possibilities for a cure.”

Mr. Holtz noted that procedurals such as “ER” and “House” employ doctors as consultants, “but they also consult public health officials on some issues. They want to know, ‘How do we say it in such a way that it’s most responsible?’ TV is not an individual in an exam room.”

Dr. Stork probably would agree with that assessment, noting that he plans, as far as his schedule allows, to continue working part-time at the Colorado ER where he is currently employed.

“It’s important to me to do that,” he said. “Doing TV doesn’t necessarily keep you in touch with the average American. But any problem America is dealing with, it’s eventually going to come through the emergency room doors.”

“The Doctors” is a production of Stage 29 Productions and executive produced by Mr. McGraw, Carla Pennington and Dr. Phil McGraw. Co-executive producer is Andrew Scher.