How Stories Save Lives.

I recently started reading a new medical memoir, White Coat, by Ellen Lerner Rothman. I know, it’s surprising that I would continue to read what doctors have to say after the last memoir, but 45 pages in, Rothman has already caught my eye.

Rothman is another Harvard Medical School student, and in the chapter about her first year, she writes about her class’ obsession with ER. Why the attraction to ER over the many other medical dramas?

It was written in part by Neal Baer, who was a third-year medical student at Harvard at the time.

I have seen Baer speak at Harvard twice in the past year, and he is excellent, partly because he is so passionate about public health education, and partly because he uses accurate story lines on his TV show to educate people. It is for these reasons that Baer became the subject of my first ever blog post:

Dr. Neal Baer, a friendly man with grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses, came to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard on Tuesday to discuss how he uses stories to help influence public and health policy.

As the Executive Producer of “Law and Order: SVU,” Baer uses the characters in the show to debate contentious policy issues, for example, how much should spent on saving premature infants when outcomes are generally poor. Baer believes that dramatizing issues is a more effective way to spark discussion than “standing on a soapbox.”

Part of what motivates Baer, who holds an MD and masters degrees in education and sociology from Harvard, is research he did with the Kaiser Family Foundation when he was working on “ER.” The study (and others since then) showed that people get their health information from television.

“People take what they see on television as true and real,” Baer said, so he is especially careful about accuracy in his shows.

Baer also uses social media to involve people in the issues presented on SVU. After a show about rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he posted information about how to help and get involved on his website TakePart.org.

“Do I have an agenda? Yes. I want people to know about rape in Congo.”

 

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