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Sorry, TNT: We Don’t Need More Suffering Repackaged As Entertainment

Vintage photograph of a woman and an X-ray machine
via Flickr/Internet Archive

M.D. Live is the latest symptom of our broken health care system.

What if you could get a medical diagnosis for free? No confusing copays, no being put on hold trying to argue an unexpected bill with your insurance company. A first, and second, and third opinion, all at once. Do we have the government to thank? Nope, just TV. TNT has announced it’s prepping for M.D. Live, a show where patients can apply to get their illnesses diagnosed by a panel of doctors—and a live audience.

During an episode, a panel of doctors will reportedly discuss the patient’s symptoms and possible diagnoses, before “crowdsourcing” with the audience, which seems perfectly healthy. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Michael Bloom, TNT’s Senior VP of unscripted and live programming, said, “We want this show to inspire action and give hope to real people struggling with medical problems to get answers, proper treatment, and ultimately, improve their quality of life.” But responses from disabled and chronically ill people online suggest that this new breed of entertainment is hiding a far darker reality.

Chronic illness affects approximately 133 million Americans, and an estimated 30 million sufferers remain undiagnosed. It takes an average of 7.6 years to diagnose a rare disease in the U.S., and undiagnosed illnesses are associated with higher mortality rates, and lower quality of life for the people affected.

But because of the high costs involved in accessing care, many patients are forced to abandon their search for answers for years at a time. Last year, The Guardian reported that medical expenses were the most popular category of fundraising on crowdfunding site YouCaring, and that medical fundraisers on GoFundMe had increased from $6 million in 2012, to $147 million in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, women, particularly black women, and people living in poverty, face additional barriers to diagnosis. In Maya Dusenberry’s ground-breaking book, Doing Harm, she reveals that of the 100 million Americans who live with chronic pain, the majority are women. Yet research released in the study Women With Pain shows that women with chronic pain are more likely to be wrongly diagnosed with mental health conditions than men, and are frequently prescribed antidepressants and psychotropic drugs instead of pain relief.

Similarly, a study by the British Heart Foundation found that women have a 50% higher chance of receiving a false diagnosis following a heart attack, because the severity of our symptoms is not immediately believed, and we are more likely to be told we are having a panic attack.

But hidden biases in the medical system don’t stop there. Obese men and women are more likely to suffer with undiagnosed conditions, often because doctors blame their symptoms erroneously on their weight. This leads to a lack of diagnostic testing, and frequent fat-shaming may mean that sick patients stop going to the doctor altogether.

And these problems are compounded for black women, who often experience implicit racism in medical settings. Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications, as illustrated recently when Serena Williams had to fight for medical intervention following the birth of her daughter. Black women also face a significantly higher risk of delayed breast cancer diagnosis than white women, and are frequently under-diagnosed generally.

It takes an average of 7.6 years to diagnose a rare disease in the U.S., and undiagnosed illnesses are associated with higher mortality rates, and lower quality of life for the people affected. Click To Tweet

Under a medical system that so often struggles to provide equal, affordable treatment to its patients, it’s no wonder that those with undiagnosed chronic illnesses might be tempted to prostrate themselves across our TV screens, in the hope of finding answers. But the trend of producing television that depicts suffering as entertainment, is one that does real-world harm to disabled and chronically ill people worldwide.

Most recently, Netflix came under fire for its show Afflicted. Billed as a documentary portraying “baffling symptoms and controversial diagnoses,” it was alleged in an article by the LA Times that producers edited the footage unethically, to falsely suggest that the participants’ medical conditions were psychosomatic in origin.

In a joint post on Medium, entitled ‘The Truth Behind Netflix’s ‘Afflicted,’ participants in the show say they were told they would be taking part in a project that would show their lives and struggles through a “compassionate lens.” Instead, they say, footage of their concrete diagnoses and tests results was excluded, and conventional medical doctors were either not consulted during filming, or their interviews were left on the cutting room floor.

The result of this was that many of the participants were harassed online, and some were even sent death threats by viewers who believed they were either faking it, or mentally ill. But such poor depictions on screen aren’t just damaging for the patients involved. They also have a far-reaching negative impact on the millions of other people struggling just like them.

Netflix reaches 300 million viewers worldwide. When a program with that kind of impact misrepresents medical conditions that are already under-funded and under-studied, it has a direct effect on whether patients facing similar problems can access appropriate care, or whether governments choose to support research funding.

And this is the core of the problem with M.D. Live.

The trend of producing television that depicts suffering as entertainment is one that does real-world harm to disabled and chronically ill people worldwide. Click To Tweet

It’s likely that many undiagnosed patients will be from social groups that already experience prejudice from the medical profession, and these prejudices may be replicated by the producers, unknowingly, on-screen. It’s easy to imagine a panel of doctors telling a fat white woman she just needs to lose weight to solve her problems, or insist that a black woman’s pain can’t be as bad as she says it is. While it’s easy to see why desperate patients might approach the show to help them when they’ve exhausted all other options, it’s also all too easy to see how exploitative this could become.

Disabled and chronically ill patients often experience harmful advice from the medical profession, as well as from friends, family, and the public, if a simple cause for their symptoms isn’t easily identified. It’s difficult to see how a show in which doctors discuss potential diagnoses, before “throwing live to the crowd for additional feedback”, will do anything other than encourage dangerous speculation from unqualified viewers, and lead to damaging, pseudo-scientific suggestions in the pursuit of interactive entertainment.

Michael Bloom says TNT’s “professional team of studio and field crews will lead our charge crowdsourcing hope to help our patients solve the medical mysteries we present in the series,” but even more so than a documentary like Afflicted, as live entertainment, it’s unlikely that TNT will succeed in helping patients long-term.

M.D. Live is the direct result of a government that considers medical care as a product, not as a basic right. In a show which allows a live audience to share their opinions, while people with undiagnosed illnesses are forced to waive their right to privacy in the hope that television will succeed where their doctors have not, the potential for misrepresentation and exploitation is staggering. TNT claims to be “crowdsourcing hope,” but I don’t find much hope in a world that relies on television to heal the wounds that the medical system leaves gaping open.