Ever wondered how medical TV dramas acutely called out medical terminology or the actors knew how to expertly tend to a fictional patient? These writer's rooms heavily lean on medical TV consultants and advisors to provide accuracy from their respective medical professional fields. One of these sought out after consultants is neurosurgeon Dr. Oren Gottfried, who has not only provided many writing rooms with his expertise but has also had the opportunity to see one of his stories come to life.
Besides being the Clinical Vice Chair at the Duke University Department of Neurosurgery, Dr. Oren enjoys providing creative and technical expertise as a medical consultant and writer for television series. He always values the opportunity to assist writers and production teams. His work in TV began in 2010 after a cold-call from a producer. Since then, he has worked on a number of shows including Elementary, Incorporated, Royal Pains, and Thrill Factor. He was recently admitted as the first active neurosurgeon to the WGA.
When he’s not keeping people entertained via his medical expertise, Dr. Oren spends his time performing hundreds of neurosurgeries a year and teaching lectures to his students.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: For our readers that aren't entirely sure what a medical consultant does on a TV show, can you dive into what you provide for a writers room and a show?
Dr. Oren Gottfried: I'm happy to. As a TV consultant to medical dramas, I provide realistic context to the story the writer is trying to tell. On a medical drama, they're discussing details of illness, treatments, and surgery, and it is very easy to get off track. A simple Google search might set the writer in the right direction, but for them to talk to an expert that actually sees that disease, sees that patient, and even treats that patient, it becomes far more accurate. Overall, I am there for gearing the writer in the correct direction to make sure that the medical story stays accurate, but even more importantly, to make sure the story stays interesting and that the medical aspects enhance the narrative they're trying to tell.
Sadie: Do these shows ever ask to have you on set and work with the actors or directors to make sure it's as realistic as possible?
Dr. Gottfried: It has happened, rarely. I look at my primary role and duty is to the writers and the producers in the writer’s room. Occasionally, shows do not have the same capacity on staff on the production end and have had to fly me out to set and be there for consultation. In particular on The Good Doctor, they don’t need me on set because they have Susie Schelling, a nurse who has worked in TV for over 30 years, and is one of the best in the field, but I still have some role helping production. For example, I help the actors with pronunciation of medical terms so I do have impact on set, but I don’t have to be on set.
Sadie: So you're working more in tandem with showrunners and the writers for specific episodes?
Dr. Gottfried: Correct, in my current capacity I'm involved with helping writers over the whole season. I do anything from pitching and breaking new story ideas, to helping the writers with medical aspects in the stories they're trying to tell, to fact checking, to reading and editing outlines and scripts, or to writing the medical dialogue for surgical scenes.
Sadie: That’s amazing, so you’re able to pitch ideas for the shows then?
Dr. Gottfried: Correct. There is an element of trust gained from being around a particular show for some time. I wouldn't say that every person on their first day or first job as a medical consultant gets to just take their new story ideas and pitch them. Again, my job is to listen to the writer's stories, and help them craft them medically in the right and appropriate direction. As a group trusts me and gets to know me, they soon realize that I have a journal of about several thousand pitches on stand by and can tell interesting and relevant stories. Additionally, my stories are original and intended to not resemble anything seen previously on TV. I really don't like the idea of shows having similar medical themes or stories, so I actually watch all the medical shows to make sure there isn't any crossover and make sure my stories are truly unique.
Sadie: You also worked on Chicago Med and they have their whole world of different shows, do you ever do any crossover on those other shows as well or are you staying pretty contained to just Chicago Med?
Dr. Gottfried: In general, beyond my main shows, I do a lot of voluntary work with Hollywood Health and Society and by word of mouth. I have actually worked with writers on many, many other shows, but that's on a voluntary level. I purely want every medical show to be accurate, so I'm very proactive in the idea that if anyone calls me, I just want to set the medical tone accurately. I help other shows probably once a week, just to try to chip in.
Sadie: How did you get wrapped into this world of TV?
Dr. Gottfried: It was actually interesting how I got my start. I remember the exact date in September 2010, my administrator at work as a neurosurgeon at Duke handed me a little post-it that said, “California Doctor wants to speak with you.” As background, I work in North Carolina, not LA, so I “thought that's kind of weird, why is a California Doctor sending me a patient?” But I called it, and the doctor said, “You're probably gonna want to hang up on me, but I work on a TV show and we’re putting together a story and I need some help and I know you're a neurosurgeon.” It’s 11 years later, and he’s a producer on a show and a really good friend. Just from this initial phone call, I've been fortunate to work with hundreds of different writers and worked on many shows. I could have missed this awesome opportunity by not calling him back that day, but I'm so excited that it happened and where it has taken me over the last decade.
Sadie: It all started with a post-it note, I love that. So, was writing, especially for TV ever something you ever dreamed of doing?
Dr. Gottfried: I still look at the field and just like pinch myself and say, you know that it's so casual for me to pitch stories and talk to writers, so I think writing always intrigued me. I also do research and write manuscripts and I get published in peer-reviewed journals. I have over 100 publications, so I know how to write, but I mean obviously writing for TV is quite different. But just being around the writers for over a decade, I've really studied how they do it and I know many of the writers have formal training and degrees and put in so much time and have several scripts of their own that they're working on at any time. I just studied how they work by being their apprentice and helper. And I know I'm not truly a writer's assistant, I'm not even at that level, I'm the consultant but I studied everybody and what they do and just try to make my writing better.
Sadie: You obviously haven't quit your day job as a neurosurgeon, how are you able to balance these two different jobs?
Dr. Gottfried: I feel like I prioritize above everything else patient care and quality outcomes, but I feel like my involvement in TV makes me a better person. It makes me happy. It provides a creative outlet. And in the end, I feel it is my duty, so literally, I could finish surgery and be walking into my office and running into a zoom call with writers or answering texts or answering email or read a script. There are some nights I have to work until midnight, or I have to wake up at 3 am to finish a script review but to this point, it's only enhanced my life, maybe it's sacrificed a little sleep here or there, but I wouldn't give it up for a moment.
Sadie: Has COVID changed any of that routine of working for the show? I assume that you've been able to do this pretty much remotely right?
Dr. Gottfried: Correct. I feel like there is so much that we've adapted to that's negative about COVID, but the fact is all writer rooms are Zoom based or teleconference based, but actually made my involvement more relevant, because I could only be there by zoom, and so I think I'm less far away from the writers at this point, whereas I'm separated by the fact that I can't fly out to LA often and sit in the room. But with everybody remote, I think I’m less away from them and part of the group. I guess writers' rooms at some point will get back to a more traditional concept, then it becomes pretty apparent that I'm not in LA.
Sadie: That is such an interesting journey into the TV world. What’s next for you?
Dr. Gottfried: The highlight is having my first episode air on April 26th, and I participated as a writer. My title on The Good Doctor is the lead medical consultant, but I did the “story by” for that episode. I can count myself as a writer as of now. My EPs David Shore and David Hoselton did the teleplay. It is an apex of my career to write on this episode and to work with them.
Sadie: That's amazing, congratulations How was the process of writing that episode?
Dr. Gottfried: It was awesome. I have had many of my stories taken up and involved as a major context for episodes, but this one was special because I got to put my name on it and I had a much greater role. Typically, most of what I do is reading and editing outlines and scripts and providing my notes. Here, I had to read notes from others on my episode, so it was fun to switch the role and be involved with the process from the other side. They admit they had to coach me as I am newish to writing, but the episode was so honest to my original stories. I'm particularly happy with how it turned out, and I think that the writing process will make me a better medical TV consultant. The process has made me even more in tune to the writer’s experience.
I never want to step on a writer’s story with the medical story, and I value that I have to look at their story and not do anything to sacrifice the inner heart. I have to think about ways to reconcile the medicine with the path they're taking, I am trying to advocate for both at the same time. I'm always thinking about the accuracy of the medicine, and I can't let down all the doctors and nurses out there with a crazy medical story. At the same time, I want to satisfy the writers and only enhance their work. So, I think I have to carry a lot of weight on my back, but I hope in the end I succeed with those two audiences, as well as obviously the fans of the show, the true audience.
Sadie: That's amazing. Congratulations. I think, at least from your standpoint, just understanding now the structure and what goes into writing a show, helps enable you to provide better feedback as well.
Dr. Oren Gottfried's first story by credit is on S4, EP15 for The Good Doctor.