Dr. Neal Baer used to race from the set of “ER” to the emergency room where he was a medical intern. Raised in a family of surgeons, Baer rebelled by going to film school, before deciding in his mid-30s to pursue a clinical career like his father and brothers. In medical school, however, his two professional interests collided when a childhood friend sent him the script for what eventually became “ER.” Baer joined the show as a writer and producer, and then forged a unique path as both a practicing pediatrician and a television executive.
While continuing to create TV shows today, Baer also now serves as director of the Center for Storytelling, Activism, and Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. He spoke with STAT about how he marries medicine, Hollywood, and social justice.
What was your first reaction to the script for the “ER” pilot?
I said, ‘Wow, it’s like my life. It sure captures what it’s like to be a medical student, a resident, and an attending — and I would love to be involved.’
Did you really race from the pretend ER to the real one at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles?
I remember driving down the Hollywood Freeway from Warner Brothers going to a night shift in the ER, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’
You’ve tackled some serious issues on your shows, which include “Under the Dome” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Is that fun for you?
Yeah, it’s great! I get to write about every complex and controversial episode of our time. I’ve done: abortion, guns, obesity, home schooling, HIV deniers, euthanasia, pedophilia. I’ve gotten to look at things from a perspective that I hope opens people’s eyes and hearts to considering the complexities of the issues.
This month, the Skirball Cultural Center in LA opened a new exhibit about humanitarian work that you curated. What role do you see for community engagement and storytelling in public health?
Stories engage in a way that facts and figures cannot. I’m very interested in how storytelling can inspire and engage and how the reader or the viewer of a film or visitor to an exhibition can then use that inspiration to take action.
You also suggested the idea and wrote the afterward for the new book “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)” by NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle. Why soda?
I thought this was a very preventable problem that hadn’t received enough attention. Because sodas are so much a part of our American diet and now a global diet, the truth about soda and their deleterious effects — not only health-wise, but environmentally as well — needed to be addressed.
How is soda consumption an issue of social justice?
Who drinks soda? Poor people drink soda. So the health consequences are magnified, because they don’t have as much access in health care. I think people should know the story. It’s not just one of happiness, refreshment, polar bears, sexy people having fun with their friends. It’s obesity, diabetes, amputations — things like that.
What do you think of the current presidential campaign?
We should be very fearful of people who deny science, because those are people who want to fill people up with stories of fear. I have the opposite goal: stories of hope using evidence-based approaches that show how we can make a difference.