Duke neurosurgeon offers his expertise to hit shows
Oren Gottfried isn’t your typical neurosurgeon. By day, he’s performing complex spine surgeries at Duke University Hospital and Duke Raleigh Hospital, in Raleigh, N.C., and by night he’s making TV more true-to-life for hit shows like USA’s “Royal Pains” and CBS’ “Elementary.”
“I write and develop medical stories, plots and scenes,” Gottfried said. “I read and edit scripts for medical accuracy and also answer questions to make medical stories accurate.”
The 39-year-old neurosurgeon also has a hand in the props, makeup and sets, all to make the medical scenes appear more realistic.
“This has actually introduced me to other areas of medicine I never thought I’d be knowledgeable in,” he said. “I’m not just confined to my area of expertise and it also supplements my day job.”
Gottfried does much of the TV consulting work for free. He doesn’t get paid for his advice or ideas, but he does get paid for his occasional trips to the set. Because of his busy schedule, Gottfried limits those visits to 24-hour trips.
“Since the four years I’ve done this, I’ve been on set or to the writers room three times,” he said. “I go once a year and can provide the most help there.”
But Gottfried hasn’t gone Hollywood. He stresses that he is a doctor first and a TV consultant second.
“I am a very busy spine surgeon, and I never want my patients to think that while I’m operating on them, I’m thinking about my story lines,” he said. “I have a strong divide between that.”
He credits his research skills for helping him be a better doctor and medical adviser.
“I publish articles on how to improve medicine and improve outcomes,” he said. “So by me being good at the medical literature, it’s helped me be a better doctor to my patients and for television.”
Gottfried’s work for television started in 2010 when TV producer and Duke alum Jeff Drayer asked him for some help on a pilot. Gottfried was surprised by the call – he had just started working at a new facility at Duke and was getting tons of referrals for new patients.
“One of the phone calls I got had a Los Angeles area code, and I thought it was a referral from a far distance,” he said. “I got on the phone thinking it was a real patient, then I found it was a fake patient.”
Drayer was writing a pilot about a neurosurgeon who solves medical problems and needed help from an actual neurosurgeon to make it realistic. Unfortunately, the pilot never got picked up, but that collaboration paved the way for more opportunities.
“I was told that I was good at this, and then one project led to another and it became more fun,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried has worked on “Royal Pains” as a credited adviser for Seasons 4-6. His story ideas were the prime focus in episodes airing in July.
Drayer appreciates Gottfried’s ability to contribute to the show, despite his busy surgery schedule. “I don’t know how he does it, because he does so many surgeries,” said Drayer. “But he’s really on top of things.”
There have even been times when a question comes up in the middle of a scene and production is halted until Gottfried is out of surgery to answer it.
“Oren has been a tremendous help to us, and the show would simply not be as good as it is if not for him,” said Drayer. “From a medical standpoint, we’ve used a number of his cases over the last few years.”
Gottfried sends many case ideas to Drayer, but it takes a lot of work to fit the cases to the characters and situation the show wants to tell.
“He’s very good at knowing exactly what kinds of cases are going to play well on TV, both in terms of storytelling and in being visual,” said the producer. “That’s where 99 percent of medical consultants end up falling short.”
Drayer says that there are a lot of doctors out there who can answer medical questions, but very few who understand what information is needed to make a good story. “Oren is one of those very few,” he said.
According to Drayer, every medical show has at least one consultant, and oftentimes more.
“For shows that regularly deal with medical topics, every medical word or action gets checked multiple times by professionals before making it on screen,” he said. “The idea isn’t popular, it’s a necessity.”
Gottfried doesn’t always have all the answers.
For a recent script involving a character with abdominal issues, he had to request help from a gastroenterologist – his wife, Jill Moore.
“I always go to her for help,” he said.
Gottfriend’s oldest daughter is also excited about his side job. “She thinks it’s really cool,” he said of the 8-year-old. “She was so excited when I told her I met Anika Noni Rose, the voice of Princess Tiana in the ‘Princess and the Frog.’ ” He also has a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
Gottfried assisted on “Elementary” for Seasons 1 and 2, and has consulted on “The Last Ship” and “Dallas,” both airing on TNT. He has worked on five pilots and will soon add a new USA show to his growing resume.
“My ultimate goal is to be there with a writer before the show gets picked up by a network,” Gottfried said. “It would be nice to maintain my day job but still contribute stories in a writer capacity.”
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