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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Final warning: The horror of horrors medical TV show


The medical industry has become as scary as the diseases it treats. On Dec. 10, the government released a list of 7,000 medical institutions nationwide that handled tainted blood products before 1994, and on the same day a judge ordered the Tokyo Medical University Hospital to preserve evidence related to the deaths of three people who were operated on by the same heart surgeon in 2003.

Every time the media reports another instance of malpractice it is that much more difficult for the government to promote preventive health, which is deemed necessary to bring down soaring medical costs. Preventive health means not only the promotion of better diets and more exercise, but also yearly cancer screenings and regular doctor visits.

Screenings are a big part of the government plan, since cancers discovered at an early stage are considered easier to cure. But there's also the fear that doctors who discover signs of cancer are too quick to operate and when they do they often resort to unnecessarily radical surgery. This fear is compounded whenever the media reports another surgeon has removed the wrong kidney.

The only thing to do is fight fear with fear. That, in fact, is the idea behind the medical variety show "Saishu Keikoku! Takeshi no Honto wa Kowai Katei no Igaku" (Final Warning! Takeshi's Truly Scary Home Medicine; TV Asahi, Tuesday 8 p.m.), whose English title is "Medical Horror Check Show" and which opens every week with a car driving through a dark and stormy forest to a forbidding castle-like hospital.

King-of-all-media Beat Takeshi, who hosts the program, wears a doctor's white coat with a black cross instead of a red one. Other horror movie touches include using the theme song from "The Ring" as incidental background music and brief between-scene inserts of dripping blood and putrefying tumors. It's obviously tongue-in-cheek, but the show has already garnered a reputation as something you shouldn't watch during dinner.

For once, talent desperate for work earn their pay. Celebrities who appear on the show and watch the sometimes grisly dramatizations of innocent aches-and-pains that turn out to be symptoms of deadly ailments have to submit to blood tests and questionnaires in order to gauge their own probability of coming down with the featured disease. Despite the jokes, they look really scared when the specialists come out and tell them what they may be in store for.

The preventive aims of the dramatizations are enforced by the "Final Warning" that emerges during the exposition of symptoms (usually right before a commercial break), thus implying that had the subject seen a doctor prior to this specific point he or she could have been saved, but that now it's too late.

A salaryman who has just transferred to a new position, for instance, is portrayed as being too busy to see a doctor about a runny nose that comes and goes for three months. The "final warning" is a red soreness around the eyes, which the young man also disregards. The next day he is rushed to the hospital in agony and ends up losing sight in one eye. An untreated sinus inflammation has intruded into the eye socket and damaged the optic nerve.

The specialist who appears points out that this particular set of circumstances is rare, but one should never take mild symptoms for granted, especially when they persist. This is basically the theme of the program: Neglecting to see your doctor is just as dangerous to your health as are poor lifestyle choices and environmental factors.

Things can get nasty. A segment that began with a discussion of hemorrhoids ended up being about rectal cancer, complete with graphic diagrams and the sickeningly elaborate story of a 45-year-old bar hostess and her long-term bowel problems. The talent leavened the medical horrors with scatological jokes, prompting one actress to bring up her flatulence. "I can't believe I'm saying this on TV," she finally said, flustered.

Many Internet chat rooms contain messages from viewers who testify to the frightening effect the segments have had on them, which makes you wonder if instilling such fear will actually lead to the desired end. It's possible that people will be so scared by the presentations that they will be doubly convinced not to visit a doctor for fear of what they might find out.

It might help if the producers included more information about treatment. During the rectal cancer segment, the guest doctor mentioned that colostomies are not performed as much as they used to be, but he didn't elaborate. In a dark report on male menopause, a specialist said that men who suffer from the aforementioned afflictions should simply seek counseling.

More detailed and practical advice about prevention would also be welcome. Last week's special program about new strains of influenza did a good job of making the inevitable flu pandemic easy to understand, even though the presumed medical crisis was described as if it were "Dawn of the Dead." The doctor questioned the celebrity guests on their habits and determined which ones "would be the first to die" in such an epidemic, but at least he explained why.

Epidemics fit the show's horror-movie metaphor better than cancer does, but they also have more to do with public health policies than with individual action, which seems to be the main focus. Some infectious diseases will probably never be discussed on the show, despite the need for greater awareness. You can't have a doctor speculating about which celebrity guests are more likely to contract venereal diseases.



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