Actor Stephen McGann, who plays GP Dr Patrick Turner in the hit BBC period drama Call the Midwife, has described the steps taken by the writers, production team and actors to ensure the series has sufficient medical accuracy and authenticity. In an essay published today by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, McGann writes of the unique insight that the role of Dr Turner has given him into questions regarding the way popular culture portrays medics and medicine. While working on Call the Midwife, McGann’s interest in the relationship between medical science and wider society led him to complete an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.
McGann explains how issues of medical accuracy on Call the Midwife are addressed from early script development stage, when series writer Heidi Thomas undertakes research using open-access journals and sources such as the Wellcome Trust archive. Series clinical advisor Terri Coates, a practising midwife and midwifery lecturer, then reviews early drafts to check facts and advise on aspects of childbirth and nursing procedure - calling in experts to address specialist medical areas. Issues with a significant social impact are tackled with additional help from relevant health charities, to ensure support for stories and offer valuable stakeholder perspectives.
On the film set, Coates oversees all aspects of accuracy and authenticity in performance. This can include the pronunciation of difficult medical phraseology, the depiction of complex obstetric procedures, and the correct use of a dizzying array of period equipment and implements.
Writing of his role as Dr Turner, McGann says: “My job is to throw a light on key human aspects of doctors’ lives and experiences through the portrayal of an individual medic.” He adds that judging a medical character solely by the extent to which they exemplify a class of medical professional through their procedural actions - rather than as a unique human personality within this social group – exposes interesting assumptions and subjectivities in an expert audience. Recognising that some medical professionals are uneasy about Turner being a smoker, he describes how he was inspired to make his character a smoker after reading a BMJ study which observed the effects of smoking on 34,439 male smokers over a fifty year period starting in 1951 – all of them doctors.
McGann goes on to explain how the medical accuracy and authenticity pioneered by Call the Midwife has helped disseminate valuable insights into important public health issues.
Last year the Call the Midwife production team was asked to provide technical assistance to a Bangladeshi TV company that wanted to depict authentic birth scenes in a new TV health drama. This collaboration succeeded in communicating safe maternal health practices in a conservative culture where discussion of pregnancy and childbirth is still considered taboo. Closer to home, when an episode of Call the Midwife featured a mother with diphtheria in February 2015, the NHS Choices website reported a 3,720% increase in visitors requesting information about the disease - with 30,000 visits during transmission.
In an age where complacency or misinformation regarding the safety and purpose of vaccination threatens the return of previously eradicated contagions, the power of dramas like Call the Midwife to raise medical awareness should not be underestimated.