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The New Vision of ‘New Amsterdam’
From the perspective of an avid watcher, the show presents an entertaining and sentimental journey, with the emphasis on ‘patients first’ becoming a promise of hope and better ways. However, it opens up the troubling possibility of comparisons.
01 June, 2021

Reports from the Congressional Research Service estimate that in 2019, approximately 30 million individuals, or 9.2% of the US population, were uninsured in terms of health care – with prohibitively high costs being the primary reason for the issues in accessing health services. From this harrowing perspective, NBC’s ‘New Amsterdam’ seems like a breath of fresh air. The show follows Dr. Max Goodwin, the newest appointed medical director of one of the oldest public hospitals in the US, whose main ideology concerns moving the focus back on the care of his patients; in other words, reforming what is perceived to be an unjust system.

From the perspective of an avid watcher, the show presents an entertaining and sentimental journey, with the emphasis on ‘patients first’ becoming a promise of hope and better ways. Indeed, Dr. Goodwin is portrayed as a man of principle and a man of the people, from his benevolent intentions, to his ability to address the janitorial staff in their native language, all the way to his famous catchphrase ‘How can I help?’. As one of his first acts as medical director, he fires the cardiac department for placing billing over patient care, and removes the emergency-department waiting room. Throughout the episodes, his willingness to stop at nothing in order to fulfil his ideology is continuously revealed: he pitches patient-centred ideas to a board seemingly concerned with financial profits, brings medicine to a homeless woman too distrustful of the system and sceptical towards physicians to seek help on her own, sets up station in a barbershop to provide free blood pressure readings to African American men who are at heightened risk of undiagnosed hypertension (and when met with distrust from the community, he teaches the barber how to perform the test and when to prescribe medication), and even encourages the staff to engage in downcoding for a patient – that is, providing expensive care, and concealing it in the medical records in order to avoid the high costs associated with the treatment. Even more, the show attempts to further humanize the medical profession, by delving into the physicians’ personal lives and challenges: Dr. Goodwin’s diagnosis of cancer and estranged relationship with his wife, Dr. Bloom’s traumatic childhood and struggles with addiction, or the threats to Dr. Sharpe’s credibility as a medical professional, as she is caught between the responsibilities of being a doctor, and those of being a PR representative.

However, it seems that views on the benevolent premise of the show are not consistent. In a review submitted to The Atlantic, Brit Trogen, a resident physician at the hospital that provided the inspiration for New Amsterdam, expresses his concerns regarding the manner in which health care is presented to, and regarded by the viewers as a result of its portrayal in the show. In agreement with the critical consensus that the series is ‘simplistic and patronizing’, it would seem that the show is providing the magical solution to the issues that have fractured the US health care system for decades – a visionary medical director, tearing up bureaucracy, unconcerned with the financial gains of his institution, whose heartfelt message to his staff culminates with the powerful incentive of being doctors again. However inspiring that may be, it opens up the troubling possibility of comparisons – that is, if Max Goodwin is the clear archetype of a real doctor who genuinely cares about his patients, then those who do not follow in his footsteps aren’t. Since the depiction of medical professionals in television has been associated with beliefs and levels of trust towards physicians in real life, such insinuations of depraved doctors as the advocates of a corrupt system can poison people’s trust in health care. In terms of the simplistic nature of the series, it would seem that Dr. Goodwin’s reforms and frameworks, born out of a sense of selflessness and empathy towards the people, are without consequence, with all the pieces effortlessly following into place. As Dr. Trogen points out in his review, the idea of a medical director unconcerned with the financial running of the institute, whose novel ideas for breaking policy are met with minimal resistance from influential bodies such as the board of directors, is absurd and unattainable in the real world. Moreover, as with most medical TV shows, the process of identifying and treating difficult health issues is simplified, overlooking the often messy nature of such procedures in real-world medicine.

It is true that ‘New Amsterdam’ is an enjoyable experience, met favourably by the general public. Having heard distressing stories of people’s struggles with the costs of health care in the US, witnessing Max Goodwin’s fast-paced initiatives and kind-hearted ideology has been, in my case, a source of inspiration and admiration towards those medical professionals who strive towards putting patients first. However, it is crucial that the series is regarded for what it is: a piece of entertainment, embellished with dramatic and radical actions or events, designed with the sole purpose of pleasing the audience. While assertions about the challenges and gaps in the health care system can prove beneficial with regards to public acknowledgment and long-term initiatives for a better framework, the complexity of effective reforms cannot be overlooked, just as good practice in medicine shouldn’t be overshadowed.

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