Culture

The real medical drama behind high-tech show 'Pure Genius'

Doctor and writer David Renaud describes how his own accident drew him to "Pure Genius", the story of a Silicon Valley billionaire's cutting-edge hospital.

A mercurial Silicon Valley billionaire looks to transform healthcare.

CBS

In 1994, his final year of high school, David Renaud was driving in a snowstorm in Toronto. The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital. "A doctor was standing at the foot of my bed," he recalls, "telling me I'd never walk again, that I had a spinal cord injury and there was no cure for it."

Renaud may have been physically paralysed, but the experience opened up a new direction for his life. He began to research his condition, went through medical school, and went on to work as a general practitioner, all while in a wheelchair. It was that experience that drew him to become a writer on medical drama "Pure Genius".

The show premieres in the UK on 16 November and premiered last month on CBS in the US. (Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.) It tells the story of James Bell, a mercurial Silicon Valley billionaire who sets up a high-tech hospital and uses his wealth and disruptive tech industry mindset to solve esoteric cases. Like Renaud, the character has his own tragic motivation for taking on the medical world.

"I really related to James Bell, having gone through that journey myself," said Renaud, who delved into spinal cord research in a refusal to accept he would never be cured.

Renaud is now one of two doctors in the writer's room for "Pure Genius", among writers who've worked on other medical shows including "Private Practice" and "ER". As well as typical writerly tasks like breaking stories and coming up with ideas for episodes, Renaud works with researchers to find cool technology that can be incorporated into the show.

"Some of the things that people say 'That seems so fake!' is stuff that's actually happening right now in hospitals," said Renaud, who shares real-life science with viewers on his Twitter feed. "One of the biggest directives that [showrunner] Jason Katims gave us when we first convened in the writers' room was that he didn't want to make a science fiction show. We have endeavoured to find either science that's at the basic level, or stuff that's going on in hospitals right now that people don't know about."

The first episode alone features an ingestible camera that a pregnant patient swallows in order to monitor her baby, and 3D-printed plastic organs a surgeon uses to practise a delicate surgery. It also presents brain-to-brain communication used to try and reach a coma patient, which seems pretty sci-fi -- but even that technological telepathy isn't as fantastic as it might appear.

"We push it into the future," admits Renaud, "but Harvard and the University of Barcelona actually transmitted thoughts using an EEG, which we use to monitor seizure activity in people's brains. They were able to take that information and interpret it and have another person 2,000 miles away receive that thought."

Renaud also points to the show's "E-Hub", a sort of command centre for remotely monitoring patients, as one of the uses of technology that could have a huge impact in real life.

"All the data that people have like the Fitbits and the blood tests you can do at home, all that data coming into doctors -- or at least coming out of patients -- it's got to be received somewhere," said Renaud. "The current medical system isn't designed to handle that. So great university hospitals across the world are working on creating "digitalist" doctors, who take that information and look for patterns in the data that suggests they have to intervene. That is very close to being something every hospital will offer."

"Pure Genius" is on CBS in the US and begins on Universal Channel in the UK on 16 November.

CBS

New technology can save lives, but it still needs to be paid for. In the US, millions of Americans are in danger of losing their health insurance should President-elect Trump follow through on his pledge to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, while in the UK the Conservative government is quietly handing portions of the NHS to private enterprise. In "Pure Genius", the dynamic energy of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is presented as being a potential route to revitalising moribund healthcare systems.

Whether that's true or not, Renaud believes healthcare providers can learn from Silicon Valley. "How do you disseminate important life-saving technology into a system with limited resources?" he pondered. "How do you get it to everybody? It takes other technology to do that. We need to look at other efficiently-run industries and apply those to the healthcare system. There are efficiencies in Silicon Valley and in Toyota plants we can learn from."

Having lived and worked in both Canada and the US, Renaud has experience of both a socialised healthcare system and a market-driven system. Both have their flaws, but it remains to be seen if real-life billionaires like the fictional James Bell will save us.

"The model we present in the show is a wonderful dream," said Renaud. "It's a little utopian, it's an oversimplification, but there are definitely lessons to be learned."