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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  3. Julian Sheather,
  4. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department

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    Medicine as entertainment

    Many people gain much of their awareness of medicine and medical techniques from television. A regional survey in 1995, for example, indicated that local people primarily gained their understanding of postmortem examinations from television.1 The popularity of factual series based in hospitals and documentaries following an individual’s battle against illness illustrates the appeal of medicine as entertainment. But public knowledge does not come just from such serious portrayals. In the UK, fictional dramas and soap operas are increasingly seen as a useful tool for raising public awareness of the human dilemmas involved—for example in coping with infertility or requests for euthanasia. Programme makers frequently turn to medical advisors to ensure that the scope and limitations of medicine are accurately reflected. Such collaboration between health and media professionals is generally perceived as positive. The medical dilemmas of fictional characters can contribute to better public understanding of conditions such as HIV. Ethical problems can arise, however, when real rather than fictitious cases are presented as entertainment and where some of those involved cannot consent.

    In June 2002, for example, the British Medical Association (BMA) complained about a sensationalist television chat show’s call for volunteers to undergo paternity testing as part of the entertainment. For one of the programmes in the series, Trisha Exposes Britain’s Biggest Love Rats (ITV, 17 Jun 2002) men who doubted their paternity of a young child were invited to air their concerns in front of an audience, with a paternity test being carried out either to confirm or deny their suspicion. Such use of genetic technology for entertainment is far from the responsible attitude espoused by the BMA and the Human Genetics Commission (HGC). Official guidance in the UK emphasises that paternity testing should only be carried out after careful consideration of the significance and possible irrevocable …

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