As Seen On TV: Ecumena / Humana

By Scott Reeves  OCT 14, 2009 9:15 AM

Fictional doctors have run-in with real-life lawyers.


The threat of lawsuits often drives up the cost of healthcare, forcing doctors to order a round of defensive tests to protect themselves against possible malpractice claims.

The world appears only slightly less nutty when a TV show about a fictional hospital in Boston gets slapped with a lawsuit for aping the name of a publicly traded hospital chain.

St. Elsewhere, which ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988 before moving to cable, takes its name from medical slang meaning a hospital on the wrong side of the tracks that serves patients other hospitals generally don’t take.

The drama unfolds through a series of interlocking stories, with characters bumping into each other’s lives like tipsy electrons.

In one episode, the fictional St. Eligius Hospital is sold to a for-profit medical corporation, apparently without much consideration that the hospital is in a poor section of town, and therefore unlikely to be a money-maker for a bunch of rapacious capitalists masquerading as healthcare providers. On the show, the hospital’s new owners make upgrades, but aren’t exactly saintly toward the poor and uninsured.

The plot twist sounds like the usual Hollywood blather, but attorneys at Humana (HUM), a for-profit hospital chain based in Louisville, Kentucky, got more than a little huffy when the TV show’s writers renamed the fictional hospital “Ecumena.”

Humana got a court order requiring NBC to run a disclaimer with the show stating that the drama had no connection with Humana. (Harrumph!) The show later dropped the offending name. (Double harrumph!)

Nancy Hanewinckel, a spokeswoman for Humana, said the events unfolded as described above and noted, "Humana sold its hospitals in 1993 and has operated since then exclusively as a health-benefits company."

How paranoid do you want to be: Could “Ecumena” have been a slam against organized religion and the ecumenical movement? No lawsuits from that side ever surfaced.

St. Elsewhere’s brush with the tort bar raises interesting possibilities for other doctor shows. What if descendants of Henry Gray, author of Gray's Anatomy, are unusually sensitive and don’t like references to his textbook tossed around on TV, even if ABC spells it Grey? Somewhere, there’s a shyster eager to take the case.

ER could be a typo and an insult to ET, suggesting that extraterrestrial DNA isn’t up to the rigors of life on earth. MASH, the long-running TV show about Army doctors during the Korean War, could be a coded reference to the production of booze, as in “sour mash” and therefore a bad influence on teens. Where’s the AMA on this?

It’s a rule-of-thumb that someone, somewhere will be offended by something, but given the junior high school potty mouth that infects many current TV shows, producers apparently don’t give a damn. Or maybe they think they’re being daring in a 7th-grade type of way. In any case, there is no magic cure on the horizon.

Perhaps part of the ongoing appeal of doctor shows is that each reveals the folks we hold in high esteem to be klutzes, moral midgets, and sex maniacs -- just like the rest of us.

Maybe wrapping the mundane in doctor’s garb makes it interesting. After all, a sink in a kitchen is just a sink, but a sink in an art gallery is worth big bucks. This weighty problem is best left to the psychiatrists who, come to think of it, are doctors armed with little more than an inflated sense of self and a pocket full of pills. Call it St. Outtahere.

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