Two years ago I had a sharp pain in my back that felt like a needle repeatedly stabbing me. Within the hour, my whole body had blown up with hives, and I felt hot and sick. Confused, I started searching my symptoms online. It led me down a fairly swift path towards the answer (it’s a bite, it’s a spider bite, it’s a black widow bite), and armed with that knowledge I headed to the ER. I told them what I discoverd, was evaluated quickly, and then given a cocktail of anti-venom. It worked almost instantly, and I was discharged not long afterwards with a satisfyingly gnarly story to share with friends.
I didn’t have to do my research before I went into the hospital, but it sped up the process. And for many it has become the default. Even after a diagnosis, I (and many others) immediately start searching online for more information, looking up alternative theories and treatments, and most of all looking to see who else might have this same condition and could shed light on the possibilities for healing. Sometimes the best resource are sites like MayoClinic.com, other times it could be a message board. I jokingly told a doctor last year when I smashed my pinky toe into a chair that “Dr. Google said it was probably broken and I needed to come in.” Going into the doctor did provide me with additional support and information for managing the break, of course, but I still used that intermediary step to feel prepared beforehand.
Healthcare in America is in an ongoing crisis, one that (coupled with the increased availability of information online) is causing more people to become their own researchers and advocates when it comes to their bodies and pain. That desire to crowdsource possibilities is what both TNT’s Chasing the Cure and Netflix’s Diagnosis seek to capitalize on. As both shows caution, this information (in the series or online) is not meant to replace the advice of a doctor. But as both series reveal, many patients—especially those with “mystery” ailments they have suffered with for years—have no other recourse. “This isn’t the multiplication table, this is Sherlock Holmes,” says doctor Lisa Sanders, whose New York Times column Diagnosis is based off of. “This is detective work!” But not all doctors feel that way.
The two series tackle their medical detective work in different ways. Chasing the Cure is a live weekly show hosted by veteran anchor Ann Curry, with a structure that is curiously part daytime talk show, part fundraiser, and part educational tool. There’s (thankfully) no live audience, but there are attendants looking at giant screens in a call center where viewers can make their suggestions for the featured patients. Those suggestions are then considered by a team of doctors, who debate what kind of additional testing the patients might need to reach a diagnosis and find some relief. Curry also interviews the patients about their stories and “the path forward,” the latter of which is purposefully vague when it comes to actual prescriptions or other treatments that viewers at home could attempt to replicate for themselves.
The live format is meant to make the show feel urgent and exciting, but the opposite is often true in these long 90-minute episodes. Many of the segments are pre-taped, including the doctors’ debates and some of the testing and early treatments. Because the show is careful to keep things ethically sound, the reveal of a diagnosis isn’t saved for the live show, meaning that patients don’t really react much to hearing this information a second (or more) time. The intentions of the series are solid, but the push to make it live is a curious one, as it leaves its host and the doctors feeling alternatively stilted or overly staged.
Still, the series does a good job of evaluating the crowdsourced suggestions, explaining why they do or don’t work for this case, and also includes an interesting micro-segment called “Non-Urgent Care” where one of the doctors replies to minor questions sent in from viewers. Further, the doctors on Chasing the Cure are all people of color, and that representation in the medical field really matters.
Diagnosis essentially comes from the same place as Chasing the Cure, except that it did its crowdsourcing before the series aired, with cases featured via the New York Times site (as part of Sanders’ column). Each episode only focuses on one case, and therefore is able to dive deep into the full stories of the patients and the care they have received (or not received). Both series are genuine, both make you very emotional over the plight of these patients, but both could learn from the other. Chasing the Cure is interesting in how it handles several cases in one episode, many of which are ongoing, whereas Diagnosis can feel a little flat or overly long even in its 45 minute timeframe as it ponders a single case. Diagnosis takes the edge when it comes to its format, which is like watching a newsmagazine (or listening to an episode of NPR’s “This American Life”), and it does a better job of visualizing how these diseases affect the body through clear graphics. On the other hand, Chasing the Cure wins out when it comes to integrating the crowdsourced opinions, including messages of support from total strangers that often make the patients (and occasionally this viewer) tear up.
What neither show does is overtly reference America’s healthcare issues, although both are steeped in them. Often patients do not have adequate access to the healthcare they need, or (because of the difficult nature of their issues) are dismissed by doctors or met with shrugs. In some cases the doctors are well-meaning, but the patients either aren’t paired with the right providers or they can’t pay for the testing they require. In one case, a patient has been sued multiple times by doctors in a system that is outrageously overpriced. (Surgeon, writer, and public health advocate Atul Gawande has written extensively about this, including calling the American health system a “very expensive pile of junk .”) It’s never explicit on either show as to whether these patients lack insurance or their insurers won’t pay for these tests (that the series do for free), but regardless there’s a horrible underlying question in almost all of these cases: “Can you afford to live?”
That is the damning core of both series, which are terrifying in the way they illuminate how essential it for patients to become their own advocates when it comes to healthcare. A diagnosis is just the start in most of these cases. Complicating this odyssey is that sometimes patients are told repeatedly that their diseases are their own fault (which is not, in fact, true). Would that it were that we all could have a panel of doctors sit down and debate all of our issues for not just mystery diagnoses but all diagnoses. As both series show, what can seem like a simple thing can sometimes be a mere symptom of a much larger and more complex issue.
The other side of this is, of course, sometimes a bite is just a bite, or a broken pinky is just a broken pinky. But as the series illustrate, it behooves all of us to educate ourselves more fully when it comes to our own bodies and healthcare. Because when the right doctors come to the right conclusions, the relief for patients is palpable. Neither Chasing the Cure or Diagnosis is “Yahoo Answers: The Cure” (thankfully), but for Americans who don’t have a team sorting through these online suggestions, following those suggestions there can feel like minor risks worth taking—or at least, leading to questions that healthcare providers should be able to answer. Whether or not the cases on these shows, some of which are historic in their findings, help viewers with their own pain remains to be seen. But they do make some important points: you have to be your own researcher, you have to crowdsource and ask questions and push. And sometimes, you might just have to go on a TV show to get proper medical care.
Chasing the Cure airs Thursday nights on TNT; Diagnosis is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV