In Depth

Following Primetime’s Lead

‘House’ Gives Fox Affiliates Fodder for Developing Health Stories

Sometimes a well-wrought primetime medical drama can lead to compelling heath care reports on real-life local newscasts.

Take the award-winning Fox medical drama “House.” In each episode, Dr. Gregory House—as portrayed by Hugh Laurie—solves difficult medical mysteries with a team of diagnosticians at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.

Dr. House, regarded as a maverick medical genius, is an infectious-disease specialist whose theories about patients’ illnesses often are based on subtle or controversial insights.

Fox affiliates across the country are notified in advance of the medical storylines. At many stations, health and medical reporters and producers have springboarded off “House” plot points to bring intriguing and impactful stories to their viewers.

At WTVT Fox 13 in Tampa, Fla., medical correspondent Dr. Joette Giovinco has aired several stories on amyloidosis, which can cause organs including the heart, lungs and kidneys to fail because of a secreted protein that kills cells in the organs. The condition, although rare, is frequently mentioned on “House” as a potential diagnosis.

“Our first story profiled Tampa Bay residents Lois and Richard Singer in 2006,” said Dr. Giovinco. “We started the story as Richard was completing treatment and used a clip from the episode to highlight our coverage. No one really understood the condition, and the Singers were so excited to see it on ‘House,’ and finally have it acknowledged. They really want to raise awareness, as most people who have amyloidosis are misdiagnosed.”

WTVT teamed up with its sister station WNYW-TV to interview Mr. Singer’s doctor at New York’s Sloan Kettering Hospital, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on the disease.

“For Richard, he had absolutely no symptoms. He went in for a routine exam, and they found protein in his urine and investigated the cause. His diagnosis was made rapidly. They want other people to have that same advantage,” Dr. Giovinco said. “Our viewers want to know the signs and symptoms. We offer a big variety of stories, affecting everyone from newborns to seniors.

“Whenever you can make something more interesting and understandable, it’s worthwhile. Utilizing these shows is fun and gives viewers a different spin and perspective.”

Bacterial meningitis, Asperger’s syndrome, facial deformities and childhood obesity are some of the subjects dramatized on “House” that have made for compelling television news stories on KTTV Fox 11 in Los Angeles.

The station aired a report about a Southern California woman, Melanie Benn, whose limbs had to be amputated after a sudden outbreak of bacterial meningitis when she was a college freshman. The communicable disease seems to target students in close living quarters, who share water bottles, utensils and even cigarettes.

“Bacterial meningitis gets into spinal fluid and starts to cut off circulation in the limbs,” said Gerri Shaftel, KTTV’s medical producer. “It can start with a purple rash, and if it’s not recognized immediately it can be devastating in the space of 24 hours.”

Ms. Benn spent three months in intensive care while doctors took drastic measures to save her life. They amputated both of her arms below the elbow and both of her legs. The report showed that while she now has a full life, she is angered that teenagers are still getting infected and losing limbs because many aren’t aware of the meningitis vaccine, which is available in most college health centers and from most family doctors.

Another KTTV story that echoed a theme on “House” profiled a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-like condition that socially isolates him.

Ben Anderson can hear a song once, sing it and play it, sounding like the artist who did the song. The musically gifted 20-year-old taught himself the entire Beatles catalog, most of Bob Dylan’s songs and lots of early Eric Clapton tunes. Yet he is confused by the way strangers respond to him.

Mr. Anderson often says exactly what he’s thinking, which sometimes gets him in trouble with people. He’s been concerned that strangers feel scared or threatened by him. Mr. Anderson finds small talk confusing and he’s often baffled by subtle social cues, such as facial expressions.

While reading other people is something he will likely struggle with for years to come, the piece showed that, through his music, he has found a way to express his thoughts and feelings and help others relate to him.

“A lot of interesting stories come across my desk,” Ms. Shaftel said. “We often run them on a night where the audience will be most receptive. People watching ‘House’ are interested and want to know more.”