It’s gripping TV, there’s no question about it. The Today Show, with its new medical correspondent, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, launched a week-long series Monday showing patients undergoing surgical procedures live on television.
In the first episode, Dr. Nancy (as Meredith Viera calls her; ugh) sits with a physician while he manipulates a remote-controlled catheter inside the heart of a patient with atrial fibrillation. The procedure is called catheter ablation.
The segment is gripping because we’re watching an actual patient undergo a procedure that could benefit her enormously, and we’re seeing it in real time.
On the other hand, it’s not so gripping. Through most of the video, Snyderman (sorry, I’m not signing on to the Dr. Nancy thing) sits next to the physician (wearing her funny surgical hat, even though she’s not in the operating room) and tries to explain what’s happening, with the help of a not-very-helpful graphic. It’s pretty static; there isn’t much to see.
What makes it gripping is not the visuals, but the possibility that the patient might die on live television. Wouldn’t that be exciting? And this patient isn’t anonymous; we get a previously taped up-close-and-personal segment telling us about her and letting her tell us how hopeful she is about the treatment.
Gripping isn’t the appropriate word at all. Ghoulish is more like it. Did the patient really understand she was giving the network permission to videotape her death?
On the other hand, maybe she didn’t. Perhaps that’s why the spot ends before the ablation actually begins. It’s fake–we’re not seeing the ablation. We’re just seeing the physician play with the equipment a bit before he begins.
Larry Husten, a reporter who has long coverered cardiology, tipped me to his blog post on Cardiobrief.org in which he criticized the spot on more technical grounds. It’s a more competent critique than I could make, so I’ll excerpt a bit here:
The 6-minute segment was relentlessly upbeat… Although the procedure was still in progress (and in fact Arruda [the physician] had not even finished the mapping portion of the procedure), Snyderman said that “thanks to technological advances in cardiology Dr Arruda will be able to fix Bernice’s heart…” Snyderman then said the success rate of the procedure is 85%, but that wasn’t quite good enough for Arruda, who informed Snyderman that ”the success rate is 85-90% with this particular technology.” As if that wasn’t upbeat enough, Snyderman then reassured her audience that ”the radiation risk is minimal.”
So, Husten asks, what’s wrong with this picture?
Didn’t anyone at NBC think about the ethics of broadcasting a live medical procedure? Suppose something had gone drastically wrong during the live broadcast?
Even if you believe it is ethical to broadcast a live procedure, it’s unethical and irresponsible to report it with this kind of relentless, upbeat mindlessness. Let’s be clear: there is no evidence in the literature to support the statement of an 85-90% success rate for catheter ablation of AF…
The shoddiness of the reporting becomes even more apparent when Snyderman declared the procedure a success, and the patient cured, before the actual ablation had even started, and without the long-term followup that can provide the only real measure of success…
I agree with Husten that this report gives a too-optimistic view of the possible outcomes, and that broadcasting a potentially lethal surgical procedure live is, if not strictly unethical, a bad idea.
Gary Schwitzer, on his HealthNewsReview blog, likewise finds problems with the series. When, he asks, are we going to see a series on primary care?
– Paul Raeburn