Emergency TV

Hard-hitting stories of life and death are changing the rules from a PR perspective as New York-Presbyterian admits reality TV cameras.

Hard-hitting stories of life and death are changing the rules from a PR perspective as New York-Presbyterian admits reality TV cameras.


For someone like Cornelius Bretz, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran, surgery might save his life. Dr. Tomoaki Kato thinks his patient has a chance to make it. Bretz has a mass on his liver.

After opening him up, however, the surgical team finds another mass, which pathology confirms is malignant. The team decides it cannot go further. Bretz has as little as six months to live.

The entire ordeal was captured on camera for ABC's NY Med, a medical miniseries that aired this past summer. Before Bretz's and other stories could be told, the public affairs staff at New York-Presbyterian worked with ABC for more than three years to make the series a reality.

While not doctors, the communications team had to navigate a complex mix of messaging strategies with surgical precision. Their plan would entail internal and external outreach as well as a human resources communications plan that would target the production staff on the project.

It all started in 2008 when the public affairs team at Presbyterian reached out to NY Med producer and ABC News staffer Terence Wrong to get the documentary treatment for their hospital.

“He had done two series at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and we wanted to show what happens in New York,” says Myrna Manners, VP and vice provost for public affairs at the hospital. “You can't buy this kind of publicity, an eight-part series on a major broadcast network.”

For Manners and her team, getting a show made about their hospital would not only allow them to build up a national reputation, but also educate the audience about the complex world of healthcare. It was also about showcasing the impact of academic medicine and its role in advancing healthcare for patients.

The production crew of NY Med.

Green light
After keeping in touch for the next two years, Wrong indicated in 2010 that he had serious interest in doing a show in New York. In 2011, work began to get the hospital's board and employees on board. This included meeting heads of staff with all the various departments.

The process went smoothly as the team was able to point to the Hopkins and Boston Med programs as successful examples of hospital documentaries. Shooting took place at New York-Presbyterian affiliate locations Columbia University Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medical Center, as well as Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Other patient stories included an expectant mother whose baby had several heart abnormalities, a collegiate swimmer whose arm was badly damaged in a car crash and needed nerve graft surgery to restore motion.

As shooting took place, the public affairs staff worked hard with messages through internal channels, including its newsletter, to keep staff in the loop. A script was drafted for when people called into the hospital with questions about the show. It fell to staff to suggest cases that would be worth chronicling on the show.

Everybody who appeared on the show signed consent forms. Patients were also made to understand that ABC had sole editorial control over the finished product.

“I was particularly impressed with the way ABC's camera crews and producers seemed to blend in seamlessly, never distracting us from our primary mission of providing excellent surgical care and training our residents,” Fabrizio Michelassi, surgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian, noted in a statement.

Dr. Leonard Girardi, surgeon at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical, talked about the show on Letterman.

Personal interaction
NY Med and Boston Med aired during a time when fictionalized accounts of hospital life saturated the airwaves. On shows such as Grey's Anatomy, House, and Nurse Jackie, medical breakthroughs are overshadowed with tales of sex in break rooms. The public affairs team at New York-Presbyterian knew Wrong wanted to portray the personal lives of staff, but assuaged concerns by assuring personnel that the producer would not exploit them.

“There were personal pieces, but no love triangles,” says Manners. “They really wanted to focus on portraying healthcare as told through the eyes of caregivers.”

The show also differs from its fictionalized counterparts in that it wanted to show the good, bad, and ugly of medical care. While most episodes of NY Med featured successful procedures and patient experiences, there were also instances like Bretz's.

Having these stories makes the show stronger and helps it better resonate with viewers, says Peggy Slasman, SVP for public affairs at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the hospitals featured on Boston Med.

“Not everything that happens is great news,” adds Slasman. “There's sadness. There are things happening that aren't always the best from a PR perspective.”

Once the show wrapped, New York-Presbyterian worked with ABC's PR department to promote the show, which led to appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman and in major publications such as The New York Times. The hospital also worked with Rubenstein Communications to get coverage in outlets such as The Wall Street Journal.

Each week NY Med averaged about 5 million viewers. After the show ran, a reunion special aired on Dr. Oz.

As of September, the hospital experienced 268 million media impressions, a 29% increase in website visitation, a 47% increase in Facebook likes, and a 118% increase in Twitter followers.

Wrong has now been working on serialized medical documentaries on and off for the past 12 years.  The inherent drama in the medical world keeps him coming back. “The kind of stories and characters we find in hospitals are so compelling and the stakes for people involved are life and death,” he explains.

It's a complex calculation in deciding where shows are filmed. Some of the variables include how many beds a hospital has, staff size, number of admissions, and range of specialties practiced. New York-Presbyterian has 2,409 beds and nearly 2 million inpatient and outpatient visits in a year, including 12,797 baby deliveries, and 195,294 visits to its emergency departments.

Production challenges
Once a hospital is selected, a major factor in having a successful shoot is the role of the public affairs departments at the hospitals. They ensure crews can roam about as freely as possible. “No matter how good you are at communicating beforehand, not everyone has gotten the word you're filming,” says Wrong. “The public affairs departments are essential in explaining the mission of what we're doing.”

While all shooting experiences have been positive, according to Wrong, New York-Presbyterian was a particularly great production because staff had a comprehensive understanding of the process from start to finish, which came from the public affairs team.

All the hospitals he filmed claim to have benefited from the increased awareness of their facilities, but Wrong says he doesn't film hospitals to better their reputations, for him it's about showcasing good medicine.

At this point, Wrong is unsure when he will return to the world of hospitals, but he is sure one day he will.

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