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Sentinel Awards Celebrate TV Depictions Of Health, Climate Change And Security

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Every year, The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California hands out the Sentinel Awards to TV shows. They're awards for exemplary depictions of health, climate change and security issues. The center says fiction can be more effective than the news at educating the public. Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Just about every fictional television show ends up touching on a health issue at some point. Medical advocacy groups caught on to that a long time ago and began trying to influence TV writers. Kate Folb, who directs the Hollywood Health and Society program that hands out the Sentinel Awards and advises writers, says that wasn't the most efficient way of delivering accurate medical information.

KATE FOLB: You had the breast cancer people and the Alzheimer's people and the HIV people. And they were all sort of trying to reach the same writers.

KARR: Folb says USC's Norman Lear Center and the Centers for Disease Control got together to start Hollywood Health and Society as a clearinghouse writers can turn to to get the medical science on their shows right.

FOLB: Audiences actually learn from what they see on their favorite narrative shows. And their attitudes can change, and even their behaviors around their own personal health can change based on what they see on their favorite TV show. So we want to ensure that that's as accurate as possible.

KARR: There's some social science research that demonstrates fictional television's power to educate the public, Folb says. Accurate depictions can also educate medical professionals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ER")

KARR: The final season of "ER" featured a plot point that came via Hollywood Health and Society and won the show a sentinel Award in 2009. When Dr. John Carter, played by Noah Wyle, goes under the knife to receive a kidney transplant, his friend and mentor Dr. Peter Benton, played by Eriq La Salle, is in the OR. Benton tries to get an arrogant transplant surgeon to slow down and use what was then an innovation - the safer surgery checklist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ER")

CHRISTIAN CLEMENSON: (As Dr. Kurtag) I've had 10 cases today, Dr.

ERIQ LA SALLE: (As Dr. Peter Benton) All of the more reason to take the necessary precautions. It'll only take a minute.

CLEMENSON: (As Dr. Kurtag) One minute.

KARR: Of course the checklist saves Carter's new kidney. Dr. Joe Sachs was a writer and producer for "ER." He's also a practicing emergency physician. He saw a talk about the checklist organized by Hollywood Health and Society, but he says the scene he ended up writing was effective because it made the checklist one part of a greater dramatic arc.

JOE SACHS: The intention of the scene was to tell a great story and to show the love that Benton has for Carter. But as a side effect of being accurate and timely, Dr. Atul Gawande was able to use this clip and show it all over the world.

ATUL GAWANDE: People still teach using the clip.

KARR: Dr. Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer for The New Yorker. He was also the driving force behind the adoption of the checklist depicted in that "ER" scene.

GAWANDE: It's been shown to thousands of surgeons and anesthesiologists at conferences around the world, and more people heard about the checklist by far than from our New England Journal article.

KARR: Gawande says that by bringing more realism to medicine on television, Hollywood Health and Society does a lot to educate and empower the public as well.

GAWANDE: That has been I think part of the way that they've helped teach people how to be better patients along the way.

KARR: This year's Sentinel Award winners include the ABC comedy "Black-ish" for a storyline about a pregnancy complication and HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" for a segment on opioid abuse. The winners will be recognized on September 27 at a Hollywood gala, red carpet and all. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINKANE SONG, "HOW WE BE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.