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Neal Baer: Empowering Health and Society Through Storytelling

Harvard M.D. and veteran TV showrunner Neal Baer helped pioneer the partnership between medicine, entertainment, and health social policy. Next, he applies his storytelling skills to the Stephen King-inspired drama, Under the Dome.

What began as a seemingly haphazard pursuit of eclectic interests has evolved into a sought-after expertise. For nearly a quarter-century, Neal Baer has helped pioneer the partnership between medicine, entertainment, health education, and social policy--using storytelling as the vehicle to inform.

The Emmy-nominated executive producer and showrunner of NBC’s ER and Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit, and CBS’ A Gifted Man and upcoming series Under the Dome, holds an M.D. and master’s degrees in sociology and education from Harvard University, and studied directing at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles. He has used his educational background and Hollywood platform to infuse greater scientific accuracy into medical dramas; harnessed medical dramas and social media to educate about health; and championed creative partnerships between those arenas to promote health advocacy programs in the U.S. and Africa.

Neal Baer

“I stand in three worlds: storytelling, which is TV, movies, and novels; medicine; and social entrepreneurship,” he says. “A lot of people get their health information from TV and the Internet and act on it, so I didn’t want it to be inaccurate. I don’t think about it as educating, because I don’t want to be pedantic. I think of it as trying to tell very rich, accurate stories that try to pose complex, ethical issues.”

That three-pronged expertise has made Baer an in-demand conduit between those worlds. He co-chairs the Hollywood Health & Society, based at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, which provides TV and films with accurate medical and health information for their stories. He taught social entrepreneurs attending the Sundance Institute-affiliated Skoll Foundation how to better tell their stories. He helped Mothers2Mothers tell the stories of African women with HIV/AIDS by teaching them photography. And he’s lectured to audiences at Harvard’s School of Public Health and the American Medical Writers Association about storytelling as an educational tool for health issues.

On Feb. 21, Baer begins production on the late spring/early summer CBS series, Under the Dome, based on the 2009 Stephen King novel, as showrunner and one of the executive producers (alongside Steven Spielberg and King, among others). The story chronicles the deterioration of a small New England town that’s suddenly and inexplicably trapped by a transparent dome. The town’s residents need to survive while figuring out how to free themselves. "We’ll definitely deal with health issues relating to access," says Baer. "Since everyone is trapped under the dome and cannot get out, the town must devise ways to deal with disease outbreaks and daily health needs once their medications run out."

Meanwhile, another initiative he’s advised, Unreasonable at Sea, embarks Jan. 9. The inaugural international technology accelerator is enlisting such prominent activists and business mentors as Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Google VP of new business development Megan Smith, and IBM VP of global business development Cathy Rogers, to help 11 promising social and environmental startups from 10 countries scale globally during a 100-day world cruise. The excursion is a joint venture between the Unreasonable Institute, an incubator, where Baer is a board member, that helps entrepreneurs scale their impact, and Semester at Sea, a global study abroad program. Stops at 14 international destinations will enable to entrepreneurs to test their technologies in local markets.

Under the Dome

Because of Dome’s production schedule, Baer will join next year’s cruise. As an Unreasonable Institute mentor, Baer spends part of his summers helping Institute attendees hone the origin stories of their projects. "Once they can articulate this, I’ve found that people are moved by the story--and more likely to invest," he says.

A Medical History

Baer grew up in a medical family in Denver. His two brothers followed his father into surgery, while Baer went the humanities route--earning master’s degrees in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1979, and in sociology from its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1982. During the latter, he took a filmmaking course, making a couple of documentaries that sold to PBS. After graduating, he attended AFI and began writing freelance scripts with medical themes--including one for ABC’s Vietnam War drama China Beach that was nominated for a 1990 Writers Guild Award.

“So I was writing about medicine, and I thought, 'Maybe I should apply to medical school, because who knows about this Hollywood gig?'” he laughs. “I took four courses at USC--biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics--and got into med school.”

In 1994, during Baer’s fourth year of Harvard Medical School, childhood buddy John Wells--who’d tapped Baer for the China Beach script--called him to be a staff writer on a new show he was executive producing, called ER. During the next seven years, he climbed the ladder to executive producer, while shuttling between L.A. and Boston, and logging clinical hours during hiatuses at the Venice Family Clinic to finish up his medical degree, which he received in 1996, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to complete a pediatrics internship. He’s licensed to practice in California.

"Law & Order: SVU" stars Marishka Hargitay and Danny Pino

“I brought medical culture tidbits to the show,” he says. “For example, when Noah Wyle did his first spinal tap, the nurse said, 'If it’s a champagne tap (a bloodless sample) your attending physician has to give you a bottle of champagne.' You wouldn’t know that as a non-doctor writer. I brought an ethnographic approach to television--which continued on Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, House (whose EP David Foster attended medical school with Baer) and Mob Doctor--because otherwise you can’t bring the verisimilitude to the show that audiences expect. ER raised the mark, just as David Kelley did for L.A. Law. There are no legal shows without lawyers on them, and there are no forensic shows without forensic people. At Law & Order: SVU, the first thing I did was bring on a pathologist and psychiatrist, because I knew I needed those medical experts.”

A Beautiful Partnership

It was at ER that Baer began to realize the power of media at imparting medical information in palatable doses. “If you just do a show about PPOs, people get bored. So you illustrate it with a story about the repercussions of a system where a couple can’t get good health care,” he says. “I was really interested to how I could take the public health issues and extend them.”

Baer utilized grants, topics suggested by medical leaders, strategic partnerships with media outlets, health advocacy and human rights organizations, and social media to get the word out about issues and give interested parties actionable steps for involvement.

One example was Following ER, 90-second health news segments that ran on NBC affiliates after the drama. Produced during 1996-2001 with a Kaiser Family Foundation grant in partnership with WBAL-TV and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the segments told viewers how to prevent a medical issue portrayed in that night’s show and where to get more information.

Baer engaged similar initiatives at SVU, which he joined in 2000, during its second year. One example paired a 2010 episode, Behave, about the country’s backlog of untested rape kits, with a Huffington Post editorial and 30-second bubble tweet of SVU star Mariska Hargitay talking about unopened rape kits sending a message to victims that they don’t matter, and directed people to EndtheBacklog.org for more information. “So this generated a lot of talk,” says Baer.

The website for A Gifted Man, which presented the opposite worlds of concierge and free clinic medicine, posted real-life success stories of free clinics, “because 50 million people don’t have health insurance,” he says.

Impact on Global Health

Baer made his first trip of his two trips to Africa in 2006 to work with Mothers2Mothers, which assists African mothers with HIV/AIDS, to work at clinics in Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa. He enlisted the L.A. non-profit Venice Arts, which teaches young people photography and filmmaking, to instruct some of these women how to depict their lives through photography and sent two particularly talented participants to photography school. Last year, he helped Mothers2Mothers design a promotional campaign to increase their web-based outreach.

In 2007, Baer cofounded the University of Southern California-housed Institute for Photographic Empowerment, which links photographic storytelling projects to NGOs and policymakers. In a similar vein, he hopes later this year to launch ActionLabs.org to link people with unique stories to organizations that can use those stories to effect change.

Baer also produced the 2009 documentary short, Home Is Where You Find It, directed by Alcides Soares, a 16-year-old Mozambican AIDS orphan, about his search for a new family and life after his parents died of the disease. The film screened internationally at 60 festivals and won four awards for best documentary.

And, on a more personal level, he and his wife sponsored a poor Kenyan villager, Peter Kaganjo, who approached Baer at one of his clinics and asked for his help becoming a doctor. The Baers obtained a visa and brought Kaganjo to live with them in Los Angeles. This summer, Kaganjo completed his pre-med courses at the University of California, Davis, and is now attending UCLA School of Medicine. "I’m so proud of his accomplishment," says Baer.

Hollywood Calling

Meanwhile, Baer’s Hollywood career is still percolating: In addition to Under the Dome, Baer has three pilots in development at CBS; a film in development based on the 2012 medical thriller, Kill Switch, he co-wrote with SVU and Gifted Man co-EP Jonathan Greene, with their follow-up novel, Kill Again, out next year; his first full-length documentary, Studio H (which just won a Hilton LightStay Sustainability Award), chronicling a unique North Carolina high school class on design, architecture, and construction, out this year; a book and documentary, with nutritionist Marion Nestle, about the soft drink industry, SODA: Corporate Profits Versus Public Health, due next year.

Baer is particularly intrigued with the forefront of medical research and ethics--conversations that are just beginning to trickle into the mainstream.

“I’m very interested in whether we should be crossing certain boundaries in research,” says Baer. “In my novel Kill Switch, I raise that question with apoptosis (programmed cell death). Should we be able to turn off the 'kill switch,' which could give people cancer, so we can apply it to other issues, like cloning? Inevitably, we should be able to clone human beings. But should we do it simply because we can, in the interests of scientific progress? Or do we stop and say, 'Wait, there are some things we shouldn’t do?'"

Baer’s work on the advisory board for the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital has piqued his interest in neurobiological research and its impact on the legal system--specifically how law is applied to public responsibility and an individual’s understanding of right and wrong. “What if there are biochemical explanations beyond the person’s control and ability to choose that causes him to do things? Certainly we don’t want them mixing in society to harm people, but is jail the answer?” he says.

“I’ve already told a lot of these stories, but I’m always looking for more ways to get them out.”

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