BBC finances soap opera about nursing students (!) to send Cambodians health messages
December 21, 2004 -- Today MSNBC posted an unsigned AP item about a new 60-episode Cambodian television soap opera created by British soap guru Matthew Robinson and funded by the BBC World Service Trust in order to educate Cambodians about disease, especially HIV/AIDS. "Taste of Life" ("Roscheath Chiveth" in Khmer), which the piece calls Cambodia's "first soap opera," reportedly "follows five student nurses and a student doctor as they move through a nursing college, the local pub and 'Friendship Hospital.'"
The piece, "Cambodian soap mixes health ed, love," notes that the soap will tackle issues of real importance in Cambodia today, including maternal and child health, domestic violence, drug abuse and human trafficking. The Center certainly supports the idea of using the mass media to communicate health messages, which is an accepted public health practice--"entertainment education" or "edutainment"--supported by significant research. Indeed, a recent U.S. study showed that soap operas have a significant effect on the health-related views and actions of U.S. audiences. The fact that the BBC World Service Trust is devoting $6.4 million to the three-year campaign of which this soap is a part underlines the importance of this mechanism for influencing public attitudes and behavior--and supports the Center's view that such mass media products have a significant effect on how the public views health care and those who practice it. Indeed, this is one mass media product whose makers will presumably not be claiming that their work could not possibly affect how people act as to how health issues: executive producer Matthew Robinson, who was a producer of the popular U.K. soap "Eastenders," is quoted as saying that if the shows do not change behavior, "then the campaign's a failure."
Given the way soap operas have traditionally portrayed nurses in the developed world, it is hard for us not to be concerned about the potential problems the makers of "Taste of Life" might encounter in their portrayal of nursing. Tantalizing plot details in the AP article include a "student nurse" who makes advances to a "sleazy doctor" in the hospital, and a "male nurse" who realizes that his patient is a woman he ran into with his motorcycle the previous night--"and the wife of the nursing school principal." The piece notes that nursing student Malay is "the show's bad girl, often sporting an Emmy-worthy pout." She "makes snide remarks about patients whose bad choices land them in the hospital." The show apparently has a nurse admonishing the aunt of a teenager who has had a harmful back alley abortion, "telling her she should have more faith in hospitals," and nursing students reportedly "tell the girl that if she's going to have sex, she needs to wear a condom to prevent pregnancy and disease."
It's hard to say how all this will affect the image of nursing without seeing the show, particularly with regard to the admonishments and "snide remarks." Needless to say, nursing does not need further suggestions that its members are focused on liaisons with physicians in the workplace. But if nothing else, it would appear that the show uses nurses and nursing students as key vehicles for the transmission of important health information, and that alone is unusual and commendable. The fact that the show would focus on nursing students--who virtually never appear in a US media culture obsessed with the training of physicians--is especially notable.