In The nonsense world of Casualty and Holby City complex medical cases and a world of conflicting emotions are boiled down to an easily digestible mash. But these programmes are on the wane.
Instead, programme makers are rushing out a rash of hyper-realistic documentaries that aim to show us what it’s really like to be a hospital patient, doctor or nurse.
Last week’s new arrival, BBC2’s An Hour to Save Your Life, joins Junior Paramedics, and Student Nurses: Bedpans and Bandages—and a host of slightly older versions of the same.
It’s not difficult to see why there are now so many.
Quite simply Channel 4’s hit series 24 Hours in A&E revolutionised hospital-based programming.
With its 91 remotely operated cameras putting real people under the microscope during what is often the most stressful time of their lives, each show pulls in around 3 million viewers.
An Hour to Save Your Life repeats some of the format—with a few stylistic bits borrowed from thriller series 24. But its real aim is to teach us some of the science behind emergency medicine.
It shows real cardiac doctors working with absolute precision to create therapeutic hyperthermia.
This is the procedure of lowering the body temperature of someone whose heart stopped pumping in order to save their brain cells.
It’s the kind of drama that Holby couldn’t even dream of.
Understanding what drugs are administered and why helps demystify medicine. And it give us a glimpse into the decisions that doctors and paramedics make all the time.
More than that, the programme also helps undermine some of the barrage of Tory-inspired news stories that depict health workers as variously uncaring, inept and greedy.
Air ambulance doctor Gareth Davies describes his anxieties while en-route to a stabbing.
He says that he resents every minute in the air because he knows that during each his patient’s heart is pouring blood.
When he arrives on scene he finds Stanley, a young man who has been knifed repeatedly in the chest. Within the first few seconds Gareth has to make some decisions.
“I had to work out how far down the dying process actually is he,” Gareth says.
The fight to save Stanley’s life is riveting, not least because all inner?city parents live in fear that this could one day befall their own child.
But even this new crop of documentaries is constrained by the limits of mainstream TV. Not one of them even tries to show how NHS cuts push staff to their limits and put lives in danger.
We’re allowed to see an accident victim’s smashed up legs bleed through their clothes. But we’re not shown an A&E ward sister in despair because she cannot even find trolleys in corridors for the sick at her overwhelmed hospital.
It seems that gruesome realism is only allowed when people have suffered an accident or illness. But when they are being crushed by the collapse of an institution they cherish—that is left out.