Observations Medicine and the media

The dangers of triage by television

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39237.609132.59 (Published 07 June 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:1194
  1. Inez de Beaufort, professor of health care ethics,,
  2. Frans Meulenberg, science writer and research associate
  1. Department of Medical Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Erasmus MC/University Medical Center Rotterdam
  1. i.debeaufort{at}erasmusmc.nl

    The much criticised “win a kidney” gameshow on Dutch television may have turned out to be a hoax that was later hailed as a “fantastic stunt,” but that still doesn't justify it, write Inez de Beaufort and Frans Meulenberg

    Shame and scandal

    “Shameful,” “Disgusting,” and “An idea so sickening: it must stem from Holland”—these were some of the headlines on 25 May, the day the Netherlands' BNN Broadcasting Company announced its Big Donor Show. The idea of the programme was that a terminally ill woman, 36 year old Lisa, would talk live in the studio with three pre-selected young patients, all in need of a kidney. Then she would choose which of them would receive her kidney before her death. Viewers would be able to advise her via SMS messages.

    Predictably, news of the show provoked a worldwide storm of moral disgust: “Outcry over TV kidney competition,” reported the BBC, while the New Zealand Herald referred to “Organ Idols.” When the programme was broadcast on 1 June, 1.2 million people tuned in, 23 000 “voted,” and 50 000 people downloaded or ordered a donor-registration form.

    The founder of BNN, one of the Netherlands' public networks, died from kidney disease in 2002, after two transplants. Defending the show, BNN's chairman said, “We know that this programme is super-controversial and . . . that some people will find it tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and more tasteless.”

    But indignation reigned. The public for the most part (61%, according to a poll) was against the show. The Dutch minister of education, culture, and media, Ronald Plasterk, said he disliked the “competition element,” but media law offered no possibility for a ban. The transplantation centres stated that the programme makers had not …

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