Hey, My Doctor Is on TV!

July 7, 2010

By Sharon Boston
Media Relations Manager
Maryland Health Today Producer

Dr. Mandeep Mehra and Ellen Beth Levitt talk on the set of Maryland Health Today
Dr. Mandeep Mehra and Ellen Beth Levitt talk on the set of Maryland Health Today.

Welcome to Maryland Health Today, the University of Maryland Medical Center’s award-winning television show, which features half-hour interviews with our doctors and other health care experts. The program runs on cable stations throughout Maryland as well on the Internet.

It is actually a bit unusual for a hospital to have its own television show. Obviously, it’s a great way to showcase our doctors and give them the opportunity to talk in depth about their medical specialties, whether it’s diabetes or delivering babies. But our main goal has always been to create a health education program that gives viewers the latest information about diagnosing and treating a variety of medical conditions.

The show is hosted and co-produced by UMMC Director of Public Affairs and Media Relations Ellen Beth Levitt. She is a former reporter, and I’m a former TV news producer. Together, we produce about 20 shows each year.

How the show got started and where it is seen today

Maryland Health Today began in 1996 when Ellen Beth partnered with the City of Baltimore’s Office of Cable and Communications to produce a health TV show. Fourteen years and more than 250 interviews later, the program now runs on 11 cable systems in Maryland, one cable channel in New Hampshire (they called and asked if they could air it), the UMMC website, YouTube and the Starfish television network on the Dish Network satellite service. Maryland Health Today also goes out via satellite to medical personnel working around the world through the non-profit group Medical Missions for Children. Patients, visitors and hospital staff can also see the show 24 hours a day on the UMMC in-house TV system, channel 37.

Four shows taped in one day

We record a new batch of shows about every three months, producing four shows in one day at Maryland Public Television (MPT) in Owings Mills.

Because the shows can be watched at any time of the day and are available on the Internet for months or years after they are first recorded, we try not to “date” the shows with any specific time references. We advise guests not to say things like “this morning” or “in research published last month. ” And, we periodically look back to make sure information is still current in the shows that are accessible on our website.

How we select the guests and show topics

We get ideas for shows from many places. We are very conscious to make sure we invite guests from a variety of medical specialties. We also try to do shows about diseases where there may be some new treatment options or health conditions that we have not discussed in a while.

Viewers sometimes stop Ellen Beth and suggest show ideas. Other people have e-mailed us with specific conditions they’d like to see addressed on the show. Doctors, nurses and other medical center staff will suggest show topics.

We keep a running list of potential interviewees and topics.

“Live to tape” means no editing

One of the first questions our guests usually ask is, “You are going edit this, right?” Actually, no. The way we record the show is called “live to tape. ” We record the show like it’s live. So, we do not stop unless, occasionally, we run into a technical problem.

The strangest thing that’s ever happened was when a fly on the set flew in and out of a guest’s mouth, and she kept right on talking! At the time, we noticed that she hesitated for a brief second and brushed her cheek with her hand. We did not know the full story until after we finished taping, when she revealed that she had scooped the fly out with her finger. If you watch the show closely, you can see the fly very briefly near her head.

Video: Taking you into the operating room, the infusion center, etc.

Dr. Matthew Weir, Ellen Beth Levitt and MPT floor director Mike Goldsmith on the set.
Dr. Matthew Weir, Ellen Beth Levitt and MPT floor director Mike Goldsmith on the set.

Ideally, we start lining up guests six-to-eight weeks before the taping day. Ellen Beth and I then meet with each guest to discuss what we’d like to cover on the program and start working on a list of questions.

This planning time also allows us the chance to shoot video and gather other visuals that may help viewers to understand some of the concepts and medical procedures we’ll be discussing.

Over the years, we have worked with some wonderful patients who have allowed us to videotape their surgeries, chemotherapy sessions, physical therapy, spine injections, breathing tests and many, many other procedures. We have taken viewers aboard the Hospital for Children’s Breathmobile and into the research labs of University of Maryland School of Medicine. We have sometimes interviewed patients and staff, who appear on camera telling their stories in their own words.

Some of our best videos come in the form of animations, which we obtain from device manufacturers and medical associations. These animations illustrate how procedures are performed, such as how a stent is opened inside someone’s artery or how Deep Brain Stimulation is used to treat Parkinson’s disease. As we prepare for the shows, we make a lot of phone calls to get these videos sent to us.

Pictures, Pictures, Pictures: The visual scavenger hunt

Our medical folks obviously know how the heart works or about the anatomy of the digestive system, but viewers may not remember these things from their biology or health classes. So in addition to video, we also spend a lot of time looking for pictures to complement what a guest may be saying. Our website has a medical encyclopedia with wonderful images that we can use.

We will also spend lots of time searching for other images from many different sources. I think of it as a visual scavenger hunt, searching everywhere to find the best pictures.

And, we work with our guests to obtain images, such as X-rays, CT scans or photos, which may be useful on the show.

During the taping, our interviewees can see the graphics or videos on a monitor, so they can reference them or point out details. Ellen Beth may sometimes prompt the guest with a leading statement such as, “Tell us what we’re seeing here. ”

Props

Dr. Thelma Wright and Ellen Beth
Ellen Beth with Dr. Thelma Wright. Click here to watch the video.

Along with pictures and video, props can be very useful visual tools for helping viewers understand medical topics. We’ve asked doctors to bring all kinds of things to the set, ranging from surgical instruments to hormone replacement therapy patches to heart pumps. The largest prop has been skeletal model of the spine, pelvis and ribs that sat on Dr. Thelma Wright’s lap for half the show. (We first contemplated hanging the skeleton from a pole, but it actually looked a little creepy).

Getting everybody on the same page

After our initial meeting with the guests, Ellen Beth and I work on a list of questions that serve as the script for the show. A half-hour is a lot of time to fill, so we usually come up with more than 50 questions per show.

The scripts will have all the video, graphics and props worked into them, so everyone is on the same page. There are literally hundreds of details for each program, so everything needs to be consistent, and it’s a lot of information to keep track of when recording four shows in one day. Again, we do not edit the program, so we need to minimize any chances for an on-air error.

Several days before taping, we e-mail the scripts and graphics to MPT Special Projects Producer Kim Holcomb to get them ready for the shows. She is a key player in getting these shows on the air.

“Pre-Pro” day

The day before we record the shows, Ellen Beth and I go to Maryland Public Television for “pre-pro,” also known as pre-production. This is when we load all the video and graphics into MPT’s production system. We work with an editor to check the video and tweak graphics, making sure they are appropriate for the show. We sometimes will change the graphics to make them easier to read or add “arrows” to point viewers where to look. We often need to add “courtesies” or credit lines to acknowledge where the video or image has come from.

Also during pre-pro, we may debate how much video, particularly operating room footage, to show. We ask ourselves whether the video is too graphic or whether viewers will really be able to understand what’s going on, even if the doctor is narrating what’s happening. Our MPT editor is often a good judge since he or she does not work in a hospital and can provide an outsider’s perspective.

Taping day

Director Dwight Phillips, MPT Producer Kim Holcomb, Ellen Beth and I meet in the control room before taping a show to go over some final details.
Director Dwight Phillips, MPT Producer Kim Holcomb, Ellen Beth and I meet in the control room before taping a show to go over some final details.

When Ellen Beth and I arrive at MPT on taping day, the Maryland Health Today set is in place, and the MPT team is finishing last-minute production details such as lighting. The set consists of a small stage, two chairs and two tables, which are provided by MPT. Ellen Beth brings the coffee table flowers, which normally reside somewhere in her home. Three images from around the medical center are projected onto curtains hanging behind the set. (From left to right, these images are the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Davidge Hall, an operating room and UMMC’s Weinberg Building).

In the studio, there are three cameras, staffed by operators who wear headsets to listen to commands from the director in the control room. A floor director is also on set to make sure everything is flowing smoothly and to give Ellen Beth time cues.

Recording the show/Surrender your pager!

When the guest arrives, he or she comes to the control room where we review the graphics and video. From there, Ellen Beth and the guest head to the set, where our doctors get a little bit of powder make-up to make sure they are not shiny on camera.

As you can imagine, we cannot have pagers or cell phones interrupting the recording. So we ask the guests to turn them off or leave them in the control room. Putting them on vibrate would not be enough. The microphones could pick up the buzz, which might also cause the guest to jump. In the nearly eight years I’ve worked on the show, I can only recall one instance when someone’s pager went off.

It’s really just a conversation

Before the show starts, Ellen Beth tries to put the guests at ease, reminding them that the interview is really just a conversation. We tell them to use simple language, not big “doctor words.” We suggest they explain things like they are talking to a neighbor or a new patient.

Some of our guests say they are a little nervous, even though many of them have years of public speaking experience. One surgeon told me he’s perfectly comfortable speaking in front of 2,000 people, but he found the three cameras to be intimidating! Ellen Beth says she tells the interviewees just to look at her and not worry about the cameras.

Some doctors are laid back and very relaxed. They make jokes on camera and they easily pick up where to look at their graphics on the monitor or how to describe what they are seeing on the video.

Other guests have told us that they are more used to being in control, such as when they perform surgery, so sitting back while someone else asks the questions is a new situation for them. One doctor even announced on air that he was ready to see his “next slide,” as he might say if he were giving his own presentation.

Even if they are nervous, most guests relax after they get through the first question or two. Once they get going, they are very comfortable talking about their medical specialty. After all, they are experts on the subject!

It’s time to roll tape

Here is the spot in the control room where I run the teleprompter. If you look to the right of my right hand, you’ll see the digital clock that keeps track of how much time has elapsed in the show.

Once we start taping, Ellen Beth introduces the show and gives the guests’ titles, which can be rather long. We give both the doctors’ Medical Center and School of Medicine titles, since all of our doctors are on the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. (If you watch the show, you may notice that the guests’ names appear with the appropriate logo for UMMC or the School of Medicine).

In the control room, director Dwight Phillips is in control of what is “on the air.” He physically pushes the buttons and controls what is being recorded, such as which camera angle is up, when the graphics and video come on, etc. Other control room team members include an audio engineer (who turns the microphones on and off, and adjusts their volume levels) and an operator on CG or “character generator.” This CG operator controls all the words that appear on screen, including the guests’ titles or lists we’ve created as graphics. MPT producer Kim Holcomb and I are also in the control room keeping track of the show.

Even though we have written a list of questions, Ellen Beth and the guest are free to be spontaneous in their discussion. In the control room, we are paying close attention to the interview. We may decide to skip or drop certain video or graphic elements if we do not think they fit the conversation. Or we may try to use a graphic again, if we think it’s appropriate.

Ellen Beth does not wear an earpiece, so we cannot talk to her during the recording. Timing during the show is critical. In the control room, Dwight, Kim and I keep track of how much time has elapsed in the show. Dwight gives the time cues over the headset to the floor director, who then holds up a card with a time written on it for Ellen Beth. She may decide to drop questions or add more, depending on how we are doing on time.

The actual running time for the program is 29 minutes and 30 seconds.

After the taping

Once the shows are recorded, Kim sends them to a captioning service to provide a transcript. The captioning allows viewers who are hearing impaired or who have their TVs on “mute” to read the transcript of what was said. Kim provides the captioning service with the show scripts since some of the medical terms can be tricky.

Once captioning is completed, the shows are then returned to MPT, where copies are made. The stations that air the show want to receive their copies in a variety of formats including DVD, VHS and Beta tape.

We pick up the dubs from MPT and distribute them to the station managers, who receive them about a week to 10 days after we record the interviews. We also provide the shows to our web team, along with show summaries and search terms, which are important to attract Internet viewers who are looking for information on specific medical topics.

Our website now has a library of more than 80 Maryland Health Today shows.

Once the videos are on the website, the process starts again as we begin to discuss potential guests for our next taping.

Feedback

There is really no good way to track how many viewers watch Maryland Health Today on the local cable stations, but we know anecdotally that lots of people see it. Many doctors say their patients love to report when they’ve seen the interviews on TV. And, Ellen Beth does get stopped occasionally around the hospital and around the Baltimore area with people asking if she’s “that lady with the health show.”

We do know that thousands of people watch the show on the Internet. Our most recent report shows about 70,000 views a month. Our guests have told us that patients have come to see them after watching their Maryland Health Today interviews. One of our cardiologists says he has some colleagues across the country who give their patients links to the interviews to learn more about their medical conditions. We also get positive reviews in the “comments” section on the YouTube channel and our website. These range from “thanks for this informative video, I now have a better understanding of my sister’s illness” to “the doctor is really cute.”

We often receive e-mails and phone calls from people who request more information or would like copies of the show. A retired doctor in the Midwest requested nearly 10 programs, which he now shows to a group of seniors.

We are always looking for interview topics, so please let us know if you have any subjects you’d like us to cover in the future. Click here to send us an e-mail. Thanks for watching!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sunil July 8, 2010 at 2:38 am

Well done for raising these issues….really glad to hear that is a nice information, thanks for sharing with us.

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