Arts and Entertainment

Misleading Medical Dramas

Fan favorites like “Grey’s Anatomy” glamorize medical careers and provide misinformation with real-life risks.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

For the next generation of medical professionals, medical dramas are likely the first place they learn about careers in the field, gain an understanding of hospital dynamics, and explore the lifestyle associated with such demanding occupations. From “Grey’s Anatomy” (2005-present) to “ER” (1994-2009), medical TV shows have thrived in the entertainment industry in recent decades, and their extreme popularity shapes the way that the public views health professionals and promotes a unique set of misconceptions about patient care and careers in medicine.

Despite the myriad of medical TV shows out there, it is challenging to find one that doesn’t convey misleading information about the healthcare system. Shows like “The Resident” (2018-present) and “Grey’s Anatomy” portray interns and residents possessing unrealistic amounts of power and performing complicated operations, sometimes with no oversight. Programs like “The Night Shift” (2014-2017) and “House” (2004-2012) depict medically accurate procedures, but focus on zebra conditions that are extremely rare and challenging to diagnose. Across the board, doctors are often seen quickly making challenging diagnoses based on “instincts,” acting illegally to change the outcomes for their patients, and going over the heads of their superiors. This promotes the belief that hospitals are corrupt, don’t use empirically-based models to determine treatment, and can be more dangerous than avoiding treatment altogether.

The best example of this is “Grey’s Anatomy,” one of the most-streamed TV shows in the world (with 39 billion minutes streamed on Netflix in 2020 alone), second only to “The Office” (2005-2013). The show follows Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), a surgical intern, as she struggles to balance her personal and professional life while following in the footsteps of her mother (Kate Burton), a world-renowned surgeon.

One of the greatest flaws with “Grey’s Anatomy” is that it features a once-in-a-lifetime case every episode. Even though the cases and treatment are generally medically accurate, the reality is that, even at a prestigious city hospital like Seattle Grace, the majority of cases are standard. The saturation of extremely rare cases in doctors’ practices furthers the misconception that medical professionals are constantly dealing with unprecedented cases. This paints an unrealistic picture of a physician’s day-to-day life, and these storylines are particularly dangerous for hypochondriacs, because doctors in these shows often diagnose life-threatening illnesses based on overlooked everyday symptoms; for example, a headache and moodiness become an inoperable brain tumor after a second opinion. Viewers may dramatize their own symptoms, self-diagnosing based on misinformation, and become distrusting of doctors who disagree with their conclusions.

Similarly, the portrayal of trauma patients on medical dramas can lead to unrealistic patient and family expectations about recovery. On television, trauma patients are rushed into the OR, with most patients surviving surgery and making a swift recovery. They are then released from the hospital shortly after their operations. At actual trauma centers, trauma patients often face multiple operations at different stages of recovery, as well as prolonged hospitalization and disabilities that lead to transfers to long-term inpatient facilities.

A 2018 study using data from 269 episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” found that mortality after injury is higher on TV shows in comparison to reality (22 percent versus seven percent, respectively). However, trauma survivors on television were found to be discharged to locations other than home, such as an inpatient facility, only six percent of the time, while, in reality, patients are sent to such locations 22 percent of the time. This suggests that viewers could expect better long-term outcomes for trauma patients than what is realistic. When trauma occurs, family members don’t have time to research projected outcomes for the patient, causing many to rely on the media, ​​and their faulty statistics, for information regarding recovery, creating optimism and expectations that simply do not pertain to reality.

In addition to the unrepresentative portrayal of illnesses, medical malpractice in media is depicted casually, as doctors are barely punished for actions that would in the real world get them fired or landed in prison. The most infamous example of this is when Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) cuts her fiance’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) LVAD wires to move him up on the heart transplant recipient list, causing her to lose privileges only temporarily. Violating the Hippocratic Oath, which details bioethical standards, is not taken lightly in the medical field. Medical dramas consistently show doctors crossing ethical lines and refusing to act professionally when faced with tragic cases. For those distrustful of doctors, these portrayals validate a fear that is otherwise irrational.

Accurate depictions of careers in medicine in popular culture are especially important today, as the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a renewed sense of appreciation for workers in the healthcare field. In fact, applications for 2021 admissions to U.S. medical schools increased by 17 percent compared to the previous year. As a new generation considers going into medicine, medical dramas have proven to greatly influence these decisions. A 2018 study at Federation University Australia investigated the role that fictional medical programs play in the motivation to enter a career in nursing. The study found that 28.3 percent of participants listed fictional medical programs on television as their motivation for wanting to become a nurse; this reason was ranked above job security or even wanting a better income. Medical dramas play a considerable role not only in the decisions of patients, but in the decisions of aspiring health care workers as well.

As an alternative to unrealistic medical dramas, Netflix has many medical documentaries that depict the daily life of physicians, surgeons, and nurses in an accurate light. The “Lenox Hill” (2020-present) docuseries centers around two neurosurgeons, an ER doctor, and an OB-GYN at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, navigating patient care and their personal lives. Another noteworthy docuseries, “The Surgeon’s Cut” (2020-present), highlights the careers of four world-class surgeons: a fetal medicine specialist, a neurosurgeon, a transplant surgeon, and a cardiac surgeon. This moving docuseries covers each surgeon’s unique journey to medicine, the groundbreaking techniques that they have established to revolutionize their specialties, and the reasons why they still love their jobs decades into their careers.

Despite the many issues with medical-themed media, these issues are corrigible. Because popular medical dramas disproportionately highlight rare cases and misrepresent their symptoms, these shows need to explain that in such cases, diagnoses are not just made based on everyday symptoms, but also on a plethora of diagnostic tests. Showing the doctors’ decision-making process in more detail instead of justifying drastic measures like exploratory surgery with gut instincts would dissuade viewers from self-diagnosing and help them recognize the necessity of professional consultation. Using accurate statistics for survival and recovery projections would make viewers’ perceptions of the healing process more accurate, curbing unrealistic expectations for both the patients and those dreaming of saving lives.

The consequences of inaccuracies on medical dramas extend beyond patients to aspiring doctors, as they exaggerate the excitement and power that come with careers in medicine. There is a consistent dismissal of the potential ramifications of malpractice, downplaying the stress of careers in medicine. A viewer’s road to medicine may begin with an episode of “ER,” but one can only hope that when they’re standing before patients in an actual emergency room, they will feel the same rush of adrenaline and overwhelming compassion that they felt while watching the TV shows that inspired them to dream.