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Tucson emergency doc to be on ‘20/20’

Tucson's Kenneth Iserson, M.D., MBA, FACEP, an expert on emergency medicine, films an episode of ABC's '20/20' in the University of Arizona Simulation Lab (Courtesy Kenneth Iserson)

Medical dramas are among TV’s most popular entertainment shows. But how realistic are those life-saving scenarios? ABC’s news program “20/20” will turn that question over to a group of medical experts to explore “The Good Doctor,” a series starting Sept. 25 from David Shore, the creator of “House.” The new show stars Freddie Highmore as a brilliant, autistic emergency physician.

The “20/20” episode will air on Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. on KGUN9. It features four prominent physicians — including Tucson emergency physician Kenneth Iserson, M.D., MBA, FACEP, who will demonstrate improvisational emergency techniques he’s used in real-life situations.

Iserson, a 1975 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is professor emeritus of emergency medicine at the University of Arizona and former medical director of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association. He is a supervisory physician with Arizona’s section of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and has authored countless articles and 12 books, including “Improvised Medicine: Providing Care in Extreme Environments.”

Can writing textbooks save lives? “I’m told anecdotally that it has,” says Iserson. “In one instance, an emergency physician working on a volunteer mission in Southern Africa had my book open to how to do a lifesaving procedure as she was doing it.”

A self-described Type A+ personality, Iserson says his fascination with emergency medicine ignited when he worked on a volunteer ambulance service and rescue squad from 1967 to 1972, dealing with a wide spectrum of illness and injury. Each case offers a unique challenge, he says.  “Not knowing what is coming through the door next is exciting.”

Retired from the UA since 2008, he practices global and disaster medicine and has practiced or taught on every continent, including Antarctica. He also runs the project, which distributes free Spanish-language PowerPoint presentations on emergency medicine. He worked on disaster relief following hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and is providing emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Medical dramas don’t reflect real-life medicine, he says. “Even those of us who advocate improvisation use it only when necessary. It is not typical behavior for any emergency physician or paramedic.” But it is necessary “in major disasters, such as Katrina, Ike and Harvey.”

Some of his improvised methods, such as a way to quickly warm blood from blood bank temperature of 4 degrees C to body temperature, have become standard medical practices. Though dazzlingly life-saving, they may not furnish the kind of tension called for by a fast-moving TV drama, he points out. Other times, real-life emergencies may exceed the scope of a hospital show — such as when Iserson worked at a medical facility in Guyana in 2014, and intervened to help save the life of a child mauled by a jaguar in the remote jungle. 

TV shows can create misconceptions about emergency medicine, he says. For instance, “That every intervention saves a life, every improvisation is successful, and our lives are continuous drama. None of this is true. This show … will rely as much on fantasy, relationships and unusual situations as any medical reality.”

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.