Is ‘Breaking Bad’ the best medical drama ever?

This doctor thinks so, and makes a pretty compelling case. An excerpt:

While most medical shows—much like the health system at large—focus on acute presentations, hospitalizations, and procedures, Breaking Bad follows its patients far beyond the walls of the hospital. When Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law of the show’s meth-cooking protagonist, Walter White, is shot by the cartel, he is immediately rushed to a hospital where he gets the usual TV doctoring: wailing sirens, complex jargon, rickety stretchers and tense surgeons. But while most shows would either move on to the next thrilling emergency or end with the patient disappearing into the credits, Breaking Bad did neither. After initially being scared witless by the thought of being discharged, Hank spent almost an entire season in bed, obsessing over minerals and pornography. He became depressed, despondent, and angry. He vacillated between motivation and apathy. In short, he didn’t stop being sick as soon as the bullets were pulled out of his chest or when he was discharged from the hospital. If anything, that’s when his journey started. While most shows focus on the heroics of EMTs, surgeons, and doctors, Breaking Bad shows that the heroism of patients and their caregivers goes on long after they have moved on from an acute care facility. And importantly, Hank walks with a limp to this day, dispelling the notion of magical cures.

Another telling scene that somehow escapes the attention of most medical shows is the look on the faces of Skyler and Marie, Walt’s and Hank’s respective wives, when they receive their spouses’ medical bills. Not only do the bills make no sense to them, the doctors appear as bamboozled and helpless as the patients. In fact, a popular Internet memesuggests that Breaking Bad would not have been possible in a system which provides universal free health care, such as Canada’s, because Walt would never have been desperate to collect the money for his treatment.  …

Good points, I thought.

If “Breaking Bad” has appeal in Britain, it’s probably for the same reason that westerns were once popular abroad. A depiction of a health care system so wild, primitive and uncivilized, where every man is on his own, is probably particularly fascinating for people who don’t have to fret about such things. It’s even set in the wild West. (Hmmm. According to this, it’s NOT popular over there, so forget my theorizing. I guess it’s just too far-fetched for them.)

But aside from health-care politics, it’s true that “Breaking Bad” is more like real life. There’s no brilliant cure within 43 minutes. Hank still walks with a limp…

17 thoughts on “Is ‘Breaking Bad’ the best medical drama ever?

  1. Doug Ross

    You’ll have to check out a BBC sitcom “Getting On” which is described as:

    “The writers of Getting On know that beneath the incompetence and bureaucracy, the petty point-scoring and battles with officialdom, most NHS staff are trying to care for their patients – and each other – under extremely trying conditions.”

    Incompetence and bureacracy? What? That can’t be possible in the nirvana known as NHS. A government run health care system has got to be the model of efficiency and excellence.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Doug, I’m quite certain that there’s not a single perfect health care system in the world. But I know for sure that I prefer one in which, whatever the outcomes and trials, the patient doesn’t have the added stress of worrying how on Earth he’s going to pay for it.

      As I’ve been watching these last new episodes, I’ve been skimming back through the whole series on Netflix.

      Last night I watched the scene in which Marie was asking the doctor about how to get the best therapy for Hank after he was shot, and the lady from the hospital finance office keeps interrupting to tell her they can’t afford that with their insurance. The doctor, awkwardly caught in the middle (at one point when the insurance woman answers a question asked by Marie, Skyler cuts her off saying something like, “She asked the DOCTOR”), gives lukewarm endorsement to the therapy they can afford with their insurance. Only when Marie insists that she will go out of network does the doctor say OK, he’ll give her some names of people who offer a better option.

      And yes, I know there are “private” hospitals in Britain for those who can afford them, which may be a rough parallel to that. No system is perfect…

      1. bud

        So true Brad.

        Doug simply can’t separate reality from this obsession that somehow the US actually had a sensible and efficient health care system pre Obamacare. I hear the horror stories of the lines at the DMV and the inefficiencies of Medicare yet my own personal experience with dealing with big corporations (banks, phone companies, health providers, etc) is much, much, much more frustrating than anything related to any government agency. At least when I go to the tax assessors office or the Social Security folks I don’t get this immediate vibe that they are going to make every effort to extract the absolute most money out of my pocketbook. Sure they can be indifferent at times but better that than a bunch of leaches trying to rob me blind.

        1. Doug Ross

          bud –

          Polls showed that more than 2/3 of people were happy with their insurance pre-Obamacare. You can try to deny that fact all you want. We are seeing the results of Obamacare every single day. Unions backing off support. Insurance companies deciding not to offer services.

          Obamacare isn’t about health care it’s about regulations and taxation. The proof will be in the implementation. I expect a disaster based on my experience working with government agencies on the implementation of software systems. Just wait til the first hacker exposes millions of medical records.

          You experience working with government agencies is not the same as mine. I’ve been down to the IRS office in the Strom Thurmond building. The people there are unmotivated and unaware of the rules they are supposed to enforce.

          I’ve been to the DMV – the hallmark of apathy.

          1. bud

            Doug since you’re so big on facts lets look at some real facts rather than some faux nonsense about how “happy” people were with their healthcare providers. Fact is the USA has BY FAR the most expensive health care system in the world. Luxemburg is a far distant second. 43 million Americans were without health insurance pre-Obamacare. I guess those are among the 1/3 who are unhappy. The rate of increase in healthcare cost was at it’s highest between 2001 and 2005. Guess who was in charge during that period? Yes, it was the libertarian leaning George W.

            Life expectancy ranking has declined sharply over the past half century. People in Canada and the UK roll their eyes in amazement that we continue with this absurd and destructive system that allows, even encourages, a tiny handful of plutocrats to make millions off the suffering of Americans in dire need of healthcare. You can continue to deny the utter greed of the tiny cadre of folks at the top of the income ladder who continue (for now) to take hoard all the wealth while millions suffer. But the day of reckoning will come when American finally realize they’ve been taken for stooges by the Fox News minions who push the failed promise of prosperity through the nonsense of unbridled capitalism. Until then only the super rich and their toadies who do their bidding enjoy the prosperity that all Americans should share in.

            Yes Doug, facts are tough things to deal with and I can assure you that the facts don’t support your libertarian views on healthcare.

          2. bud

            As for the DMV, I’ve never had the first problem with them. Verizon on the other hand is like dealing with Beelzebub.

          3. Doug Ross

            Comparing U.S. healthcare and life spans is a waste of time. It’s an aggregation of far too many variables to fit a neat little model. The demographics and economies are so different that it offers no real evidence of proving one system is better than another.

            Most people were satisfied with their health care options, That is a fact. Let’s see where we’re at five years from now.

  2. Burl Burlingame

    The Brits also make “Copper,” which is a fabulous show (right down your alley, Brad) which gives an impression of “American” life in tough times.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You know, I thought I would like “Copper,” but lost interest after a couple of episodes. It seemed like it overdid things, to the point of being off-putting.

      I thought “Hell on Wheels” did a better job of depicting the utter grubbiness of 19th century working-class life and the way the industrial revolution ground up people, and kept me interested. Up to a point. I don’t think I finished the second season.

      Speaking of which, this may seem off-topic, but I think Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Rose would make a really good movie, or mini-series. That may be his most evocative (in terms of evoking a particular alien time and place) novel, or maybe it comes in second to Gorky Park

  3. Btdt

    The whole health care aspect of Breaking Bad is kind of silly. Both Walt and Hank are covered by health insurance. Both wives decided they must go outside the system for their husband’s care. In the UK, Canada and Australia, if you go outside of the system, you have to pay extra, too. Walt’s wife wanted experimental cancer surgery. Does the NHS pay for experimental cancer surgery? No. Neither do insurance companies.

    The Hank situation was utterly silly. Having worked in US hospitals for 30 years I can assure you that doctors don’t hang out in the hospital’s billing office, nor do billers hang out in patient care areas. Large hospitals don’t even have billing departments on site — they’re in separate buildings. So there’s no way a person could be asking a doctor what is the best care for a patient in front of a medical billing officer. They would never all be in the same room together.

    Nor would the billing officer know what the best care is. My sister has been a hospital medical biller for years and knows squat about the details of patient care.. So she wouldn’t be interrupting a doctor, even on the insane chance that a doctor and a patient’s family happened to be in the her billing office in the separate building from the hospital, discussing patient care issues.

    Insurance companies pay for rehab. They pay a certain amount for a certain number of visits. It’s up to the therapist to let the patient’s medical doctor know if more visits are essential. The doctor then says, “ok, tell me what he needs. Write up a treatment plan and my office will send it to the insurance company saying that the patient’s current condition warrants it.” Usually, the insurance company ok’s more visits. The same is true for in-patient rehab. If a longer stay is essential, it is usually allowed. If it can be taken care of at home, the patient is discharged and given outpatient treatment.

    A DEA agent injured on the job will also be eligible for workman’s compensation as well as his health insurance benefits. Breaking Bad introduces a silly red herring by saying Hank had been suspended by the DEA at the time of his shooting, leaving his workman’s comp eligibility unclear. Believe me, his DEA office would have come up with a way to get him covered even if it meant destroying the minutes of the meeting Hank had left a few minutes before being shot. Or pretending they held another meeting and revoked his suspension retroactively. At any rate, a DEA agent shot by drug dealers he’d been investigating would be considered on the job no matter what.

    Yes, everyone is baffled by their hospital bills. You call the hospital and ask to meet with someone to explain the bill to you and help you make a payment plan. Sometimes social workers do this. My husband’s father recently had heart surgery and rehab. He is in his late 80s. He worked with billing and with a social worker and paid off what he owed (not much) over a few months.

    My father had stage 4 lung cancer, like Walt. He was a government employee and so was my mother. He also got Medicare. My mother, a state employee, insured my father as well as herself under her insurance. My father insured my mother as well as himself under his. As a result, both of my parents were covered by three different kinds of insurance. When my father died 19 months after diagnosis, a total of $600 was paid for all of his treatment (including inpatient chemotherapy and surgery and recovery for a broken hip when his cancer had spread). My parent’s generation had the best insurance the US has ever or will ever see again.

    But Walt and Hank were adequately covered by their insurances. Hank would also have qualified for a home health aide at least for a few hours a day. When you want extra special care, you will pay for it in the US, in Canada, in the UK, in Australia and in France. Nobody gets free experimental health care unless a research grant covers it.

    Vince Gilligan wanted to make a statement about US health care being inadequate, but he could not do that and also have his main character to be a chemistry teacher, because teachers are covered by insurance. If his character was unemployed, under-employed oempathise employer did not provide health care, then the insurance angle would have been a good one and a realistic part of the story. But a middle-aged, fully employed teacher and DEA agent don’t fit that profile. The result seems to have confused foreign viewers who say, “Breaking Bad could never happen in our country because we don’t pay for health care.” Everyone pays for health care, either in taxes or in insurance premiums. Hank and Walt paid for insurance and got it.

    I myself believe we should have universal health care. It’s the most sensible plan. Nobody should be uninsured. I like that Vince Gilligan cares about under-insurance in the US, but next time, he needs to write characters who are not insured at all, or are only partially insured, and not characters who are fully insured.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, it was never all about the insurance.

      As soon as we say, “Well, Walt has insurance,” we realize there are the other things acting upon him. There’s the son with health problems. There’s the wife who’s having a very late-in-life (although she’s apparently not as old as Walt is) baby. There’s his feeling of leaving them in a terrible position, to struggle along in poverty after they no longer have his modest salary to rely on.

      And there’s the fact that co-pays and such could well be more than they can afford.

      My family has been through a big fight with cancer, and we shelled out a good bit more than $600. Of course, it wasn’t onerous for us because it occurred at the one period in our lives when we had the most income coming in. But most of my adult life, what with being a newspaperman and having a large family, it would have been more difficult.

      So I can feel Walt’s anxiety on those points, and on the others as well.

      Then, in terms of what caused him to break bad, there’s the fact that Walt is quite a talented scientist, but, unlike his friend from school, has never been a success (in his own eyes). He’s felt hemmed in, limited, frustrated in life. But when he faces death, something snaps. He’s not going to be the struggling guy barely making ends meet, fearful of bad things happening. Not any more. Now, he’s going to get rewarded handsomely what what he’s always been very good at.

    2. Doug Ross

      That was a very informative post. I think it speaks to the issue that people tend to view the insurance situation in the U.S. from their own biased perspective. That’s why it is important to remember that the majority of Americans WERE happy with their insurance prior to Obamacare. The issue Obamacare SHOULD have addressed was solely access by removing the ability of insurers to deny coverage. If they had just started with that instead of a massive overhaul with the soon-to-be train wreck of implementation, we wouldn’t have seen the backlash that exists.

      Do you really think Republicans would have fought a one page bill that said “Insurers can’t deny coverage and any citizen who wants to purchase insurance can buy into the the same plan as U,S. congressmen have”,
      That would have addressed a huge area of concern. It should have been incremental instead of all encompassing.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Talk about seeing an issue from one’s perspective, Doug.

        And actually, opening the Congressional health care plan to everyone would be the sure fire way to bankrupt the country. Can you not imagine the rush toward single payer healthcare that would ensue?

  4. Burl Burlingame

    “Do you really think Republicans would have fought a one page bill that said “Insurers can’t deny coverage and any citizen who wants to purchase insurance can buy into the the same plan as U,S. congressmen have”,”

    What’s amusing is that the special treatment Congress gets under ObamaCare was a Republican amendment. (Chuck Grassley)

  5. Burl Burlingame

    “Copper” in its first season was a concept in search of a theme, and now they’re in their second season, the show has hit a solid groove — the politics of redemption, in an era when many folks had poor impulse control, thanks to Civil War PTSD. It’s also beautifully photographed.

    Alfre Woodward is great in it as the black doctor’s mother-in-law who is a recently freed slave, who finds the concept of freedom kind of scary. So is Donal Logue as the Tammany Hall politico.

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