Health + Behavior

UCLA helps Hollywood tell stories about social justice, health

The new Global Media Center for Social Impact will help screenwriters weave realistic, complex ethics and health issues into their scripts

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Neal Baer in Paris

Neal Baer

Should a mother euthanize a child suffering from a terminal illness?

Should a doctor teach torture techniques to military personnel?

These complex ethical questions and others like them have guided Dr. Neal Baer’s career as a pediatrician and a writer for television over the last 25 years. They’re also the kinds of questions that have kept fans of "China Beach," "ER," "Law and Order: SVU" and "A Gifted Man" mesmerized.

And they’re also the types of questions that will energize his work as the co-director of UCLA’s newly established Global Media Center for Social Impact, established in October at the Fielding School of Public Health.

"For me, it seemed the right time to explore how we can think about what we call the social determinants of health," said Baer of his decision to co-create this new center and bring his own Center for Storytelling and Health to UCLA. "I’ve become less interested in what goes on in the clinics and the hospitals and more in what goes on in the community. And Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding school, really embraces that."

The center, co-directed with Sandra deCastro Buffington, serves as a one-stop shop where Hollywood writers and producers can find accurate information on health and social justice topics that can be woven into their storylines in interesting and compelling ways. In addition to providing Hollywood professionals with access to faculty experts and community members who can talk personally about immigration, LGBT issues, economic justice, violence and other issues, the global media center will also be a nexus for graduate-level research, said Baer.

This is not the first time UCLA has forged such partnerships with professionals from the entertainment industry to solidify the campus’s commitment to education and public service.

The School of Theater, Film and Television, for example, has partnered with Participant Media, a global entertainment company that focuses on feature film, television, publishing and digital content that inspires social change, to support the work of outstanding graduate students in directing, writing and producing with a focus on humanistic storytelling and social responsibility.

In another corner of the campus, the Burkle Center for International Relations is promoting connections between the entertainment industry and senior experts from organizations like the United Nations, the US State Department, the World Bank and the World Health Organization to raise public awareness of global policy, humanitarian and advocacy issues through television and film.

Baer’s own connection to Hollywood dates back to 1989 when he wrote and directed his first television project, an afterschool special about sexually transmitted diseases that was selected by the Association of Women in Film and Television as the best children's drama of the year.

Five years later, Baer broke boundaries by becoming the first physician-writer to be embedded in a Hollywood writers’ room.

"Previously, consultants would be brought in in the final stages to assist with the script," said Baer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado College and studied at the American Film Institute before earning graduate degrees in sociology, education and medicine from Harvard.

But "ER" changed that. "ER infused the stories with true medical dilemmas and experiences — things that an outsider would not know or think to ask about," Baer said. "Today there are no medical series done without medical doctors on the staff as writers."

Over the years, he has touched on many controversial hot-button topics, including teen abortion, transition surgery for transgender kids, AIDS deniers, euthanasia, gun control and rape in the Congo.

"For me, nothing is off- limits," said Baer, who is currently show runner for the CBS hit show, "Under the Dome." He is currently writing a book and preparing to release his second novel in June 2014. He is producing a documentary about the soft-drink industry and sits on the boards of various health-related organizations. And he has just accepted a position as a research scientist at UCLA.

His no-holds-barred approach has earned him nearly a dozen Emmy nominations for writing and producing, as well as award nominations from the Writers’ Guild of America. He’s also been recognized by such organizations as the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Lupus LA, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Medical Writers Association for excellence in writing and for highlighting various health and social justice issues.

The power of personal stories

Alcides Soares worked with Baer to produce "Home Is Where You Find It," a documentary about his search for family after losing his parents to AIDS.

Much of his success centers on his ability to tap into the compelling stories of others.

"People often don’t realize the power of their stories," said Baer. "When we’re passionate about something, we’re more likely to do something about it."

His own personal experience of treating children with gunshot wounds motivated him to take a public stance for gun control.

For the past several years, he has mentored a broad range of storytellers, including students in the poorest county in South Carolina. They became the focus of a documentary, produced by Baer, that chronicled their efforts to create a local farmers market and deal with health disparities. Another documentary he produced while working in Mozambique was directed by a teenaged AIDS orphan who searches for a sense of family in the aftermath of his parents’ deaths.

While Baer has changed the outcome of many personal stories, one, in particular, stands out. Five years ago, he met a young Kenyan man named Peter Kaganjo while working in a temporary clinic.

"I saw 240 kids that day," recalled Baer. "I did the best I could with very limited resources, and after I finished there was a young man who had waited, literally in the rain, all day for me."

Kaganjo told Baer about his dream of becoming a doctor. His parents, tea-pickers by trade, couldn’t afford to send him to college, but Kaganjo remained determined. He had spent years studying by kerosene lamp because his village had no electricity. Holding out his most recent report card and the results of a national exam, Kaganjo asked Baer for help.

With little hesitation, Baer contacted his wife back in Los Angeles and expressed his interest in sponsoring the young man to come to the United States to study.

As a result, Kaganjo’s life is much different today. He is now in his second year at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine after attending Santa Monica College and graduating from UC Davis in 2012.

"I just wanted to give Peter a chance because he wanted so badly to be a physician," said Baer. "It’s wonderful to see him thriving at UCLA."

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