Dr. Oren Gottfried is a neurosurgeon and entertainment professional that lends his medical expertise to hit television series such as “The Good Doctor” and “Chicago Med” and has consulted on over 70 television series. He has been the lead medical consultant for four seasons of “The Good Doctor”, a medical consultant for all seven seasons of “Chicago Med,” and even has a recurring role as an actor on “Chicago Med.” He is a director of neurosciences for Duke Health at Duke University and a Vice-Chair for the Department of Neurosurgery, and Dr. Oren has over 20 years of neurosurgery experience. Most impressively, Dr. Oren has become the first ever neurosurgeon to be admitted to both SAG and the WGA. I chatted with him to learn more about the fascinating intersection of his two areas of expertise and his rapid rise as a creative to watch in television.
What drew you to become a neurosurgeon? Is there a particular moment that made you realize, yes, I want to pursue this profession?
My first exposure to the field of neurosurgery occurred when I was ten. I was in a city-wide theater production of Flowers for Algernon – a play about a man, Charlie, who had a profound developmental delay and undergoes a neurosurgery in an attempt to improve his functioning. I played the character of young Charlie. I was the only kid in the play and we performed regularly over a four-month period, which gave me ample time to contemplate the story and its implications. While I realized the story was fictional, I was amazed by the possibility of Dr. Jayson Strauss performing brain surgery on Charlie in an attempt to enhance his entire perception and experience of life. Naturally, the story has significant ethical themes, but I witness the incredible possibility of neuromodulation, which is the ability to repair or improve the brain and nervous system functioning.
I fully committed to neurosurgery and the sciences during undergraduate studies as a zoology major and while working in a neurosciences lab treatments of Parkinson’s studying disease. My primary goal as I entered medicine — and that continues to this date — was to serve my patients and always offer guidance and treatments to improve their mental and physical health. I like that while my field is very technical and is ever-evolving as new treatments and discoveries are published almost daily, patient communication is still key. Since the diseases and surgeries are quite complex, it is very important to be able to educate patients and their families and to make sure they are making the best decisions to promote their health care goals. Teaching is a big part of what I do. A secondary benefit of my specialty is that I am fortunate to be able to do surgeries that improve strength, posture, gait, sensation, functioning, and quality of life as well as reduce or eliminate severe nerve pain.
Tell me about your career journey! What inspired you to pursue and maintain a career in television?
While I am very observant of the reality of the moving parts around me, I have an avid imagination, and often, I play out stories and alternative versions of reality in my head. I like to create and consider scenarios beyond what I am participating in or beyond what anyone has told or seen. Prior to my TV work, I had not found my artistic canvas, and these stories were just flashes of thoughts submitted to my memory or forgotten or perhaps played out in my dreams. Meanwhile, during medical school and training, I was required to have an encyclopedic understanding of all fields of medicine. Lucky for me, I found the perfect creative outlet in writing for television, where I could combine a comprehensive knowledge of medicine, far beyond neurosurgery, with storytelling. While I do religiously read the medical literature to get inspired for new stories, I also revisit my emotional experience working with sick patients in complex and uncertain scenarios to develop stories. I respect the privacy of my patients and would never use their stories, but I do borrow from how specific experiences impact or challenge me.
I know that you serve as a medical consultant for several television shows like ‘The Good Doctor,’ and ‘Chicago Med,’ and you have done some writing. Can you give a little bit of insight into your process? How do you get into the mindset to do screenwriting?
My shows allow me to pitch medical and surgical stories with complex ethical dilemmas. I do not simply pitch a medical mystery, an interesting diagnosis or a cool surgery save, but a full-fledged storyline. I think in terms of developing a complete story and much more than the diagnosis and treatment of a medical illness, like: how the sick character and their family members are impacted by this disease; their overarching struggles, conflicts, and goals; what they would be doing if no one was ill; and how this particular patient and their experience and disease presentation affects each doctor. I describe the main patient’s backstory and how it impacts the current disease presentation as well as how the doctor’s previous experiences may bias or affect their care of this patient. I describe my vision of what the doctors would be talking about in front of the patient and what they would be debating or struggling with their medical team members away from the patient like in the doctor’s lounge, in the OR, or socially outside of the hospital . Yes, doctors do take their work and empathy home with them. I think in terms of the emotional experience and the complex and difficult dilemmas of the characters as well as the viewers, and in the end, there should be some meaningful growth after an interesting, exciting, and unpredictable journey. Overall, I quite enjoy pitching original medical stories to my shows’ writers and producers. In fact, I am ready to pitch 50-100 stories at a moment’s notice. I started journaling all of my stories and ideas in 2010 and I continue to add several daily. I have accumulated over 2,000 medical stories, a number of which have appeared on-air, and I routinely go back to this journal to fit stories to new requests from writers.
In addition to providing original stories, I enjoy breaking (creating) new stories with writers. Typically, they have the non-medical structure in mind and need to know the medical side of things to develop their stories. It is amazing how much they can create even without any or minimal medical components in place. I listen closely to the story requirements, and I pitch medical options that fit exactly with their story criteria. There are considerable discussions as I educate the writers about the medical, ethical, or surgery story they selected and they further define to me what they are going for with their story. Most of this work is done by phone, email, or by reviewing early story documents and providing notes. I review all of the available research articles on the topics for each episode and siphon and distill out the facts the writers absolutely need to know in a bulleted document for them to use as they write their story. This process of educating the writer on the medicine and marrying it with their story goes on for weeks and is quite fun and collaborative. In general, I love that the writers care so much about getting the medical story accurate. Additionally, I provide detailed notes with references on every outline and all drafts of the script for one of these shows. In the end, the final decisions on how accurate or how many of my medical notes can be honored is up to the writers and the producers, but I am happy that so much makes its way into the episode. At the end, the medical aspect to the story is like a prominent character in an episode, but it isn’t the only character, and I think it is important that medical dramas are emotion-provoking roller coasters, and never dull, medical school grade documents.
I know your TV career began when you received a cold call from a producer in 2010. Now that you have been in the television industry for a while, how is it being a part of that atmosphere? What is it like being on set?
If you told me in 2009 what I would see and experience in television over the next twelve years, I would never have believed you. I have worked directly with many great writers and producers who have created many of my favorite shows, helping them with their next pilot. I get unsolicited emails and cold calls asking me to assist with new projects, often by word of mouth. I love that doing good work for one project allows a nice writer to refer me to their friends. What started as me going on set to help with cast and crew on multiple shows has led to me appearing on air on two of them, including a recurring acting role on one show. In general, what I like the most is being a part of the process and a valued team member in the writing collaboration. I do not live in LA, so even pre-covid, I did most of my work by teleconference. It is so fun to Zoom with a few writers on a particular episode or present to the entire writers room and just brainstorm or break new stories with them. I still cannot believe that my life, creativity, and medical and hospital experience are valuable audience to writers and hopefully,s. I do provide the writers and production 24/7 access to me, and it is well worth it as sometimes–there are urgent matters, and I never want issues with the medical aspects of a story to slow down or negatively impact the creative momentum or timelines. Also, by being available at all times, I can keep the medicine in the realm of reality to keep the stories on target.
What is your one dream project that you would love to work on in the future (if there is one)?
My affiliation with HH&S (Hollywood, Health & Society) has been a dream come true. This group approaches me many times a year with new projects with which to assist writers. Over the years, they have helped me work with over 50 different shows. I feel like I am living a dream with my current TV shows and upcoming projects. My goal would be to continue to work on shows that I like to watch and that value accurate medicine in addition to great storytelling. I just hope my particular skill set and storytelling remain in demand, and that I get to continue to work on great projects with awesome writers, cast, and crew. I have helped several movies, and I would like to continue working on the big screen. I think it would be great to get into the realm of helping a relevant superhero-like Doctor Strange, and I am more than happy to help on other movies and projects with heroes that are not neurosurgeons. I would love to continue acting and hope for further crossovers between consultant and onscreen work.
Lastly, do you have anything that you want to promote?
I would like to mention and thank some very important people in the field of medical consulting who work tirelessly on set with cast and crew to promote the accuracy of the production. Most of my work is assisting the writing process, but these talented clinicians with medical degrees, nursing degrees, and tons of clinical and TV experience deserve special recognition for their onset work with production. I am indebted to Susie Schelling, Bobbin Bergstrom, Andrew Dennis, DO, Victoria Schlanser, DO, and all the TV medical consultants who worked before me and led to this opportunity.
Thanks for reading! Learn more about Dr. Oren on Twitter and IMDb.