The trick to playing doctor on TV

Keep an eye out for Durban Gen on and let us know if you feel they’re doing a realistic job. Picture:
Keep an eye out for Durban Gen on and let us know if you feel they’re doing a realistic job. Picture:


How do show runners go about making us believe what we see on medical dramas, and  what does the world of medicine think about these depictions?

Globally, TV viewers love a drama set in a hospital, as in shows such as New Amsterdam and Grey’s Anatomy. It might tie into our morbid fascination with death – which is natural, considering that’s what we are all heading towards.

Locally, we have also adopted the hospital to House ... see what we did there – shows such as Soul City (1994) and Jozi H (2006), and, last year, Durban Gen and Vutha.

Durban Gen, currently on air, is doing as well as you might expect of a show from the famed production house Stained Glass TV, which is responsible for Ifalakhe and the popular Uzalo.

The Clive Morris-produced Vutha followed the lives of medical practitioners in Daveyton.

#Trending contacted both producers to establish how a series goes about incorporating medical lingo correctly, and their medical consultants about whether the portrayal of medical procedures on screen is close to the truth.

Like all career shows, the life of the professional involved is obviously made to look far more exciting than the reality of the situation.
Dr Arrin Katz

You must be familiar with the terms ‘cc’s’ [the measure for things such as injections] and ‘stat’ [immediately].

That and clasping hands together to apply pressure when administering CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) are a few things we’ve learnt from TV doctors, but how close to the truth are they? To pull audiences in, re-enacted procedures need to be well researched and believable.

One of the ways Durban Gen does this is by consulting with GP Dr Thobeka Ntseko weekly on their content. Ntseko says: “Working in trauma departments for 13 years has made me the perfect candidate for them.”

So how close to the truth is what we see in a show such as Durban Gen?

“It depends on the aspects. The social aspects in hospitals are truthful, academically and work-wise [the running practices of a hospital], but a lot of it is exaggerated for the purposes of entertainment.”

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She says some of the harder procedures to act out are scenes in the operating theatre.

“Those are difficult to coordinate, and intensive to recreate. The work that happens in the operating theatre is highly specialised and requires a lot of practising of words and using instruments. Most people haven’t been in a theatre, let alone had to act like they are working in one.”

Ntseko says that, prior to Durban Gen, South Africa didn’t really represent the medical world well because it portrayed a lot of untruths and grandiose embellishments.

Director of SABC2’s Vutha, Ntokozo Mbuli, disagrees. The show came out last year and was well received. Mbuli says the secret to a decent depiction was having a great cast and crew: “Our medical professionals, production design team and make-up team helped a lot. We had medical doctors involved from development, and doctors in the writing room, advising on feasibility.”

These doctors checked the dialogue in the script, and were consulted on the pronunciation of the medical terminology as well as wardrobe choices.

Mbuli elaborates: “When we were on set, they were in the room for all the scenes in which medical procedures were done. Medical practitioners were involved in every part of the process because when you are writing the script, you need to know if what you are writing can be realised on set.”

Mbuli was even able to produce one of Vutha’s front-line consultants, a Dr Arrin Katz, who broke a few things down for us: “Like all career shows, the life of the professional involved is obviously made to look far more exciting than the reality of the situation. Most of what we do is routine and could be considered to be mundane. There is also a lot of admin work that is not worthy of being shown on screen.”

Katz also said that hospitals are not as riddled with corruption and fraud as some of these dramas might suggest.

Man, that show is cringe.
Dr Thabang Peterson

The procedures are usually overplayed on screen, while the human tragedy is underplayed.

“This should not be seen as a criticism of the TV industry, but rather a heartfelt comment that, by the very nature of the issue when dealing in person with someone who has suffered a loss or tragedy, it’s far more traumatic than portrayed on screen.”

As a result of the involvement of doctors in shows like these, some of the things we have engaged with in our leisurely viewing could very well help us in real life.

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We asked an impartial party.

Dr Thabang Peterson is a doctor who’s been practising for four years in neurological paediatrics in Joburg.

He’s watched Durban Gen and isn’t impressed: “Man, that show is cringe. If you think of representations of a hospital and what is shown on TV, especially in shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Durban Gen – they focus on the personal life as opposed to day-to-day basics: hospital running, treatment, patient management.”

The mundane aspects of medicine are kept away from the cameras, no matter how intrinsic to the world of medicine they might be.

Peterson adds: “In the first episode of Durban Gen I watched, someone had a drip and it was Sellotaped to the arm … I mean, come on!”

Perhaps these shows can’t trick everyone.


Phumlani S Langa 


+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park

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