In the pilot episode of Scrubs, JD gets his first emergency call after a patient’s heart fails. He frantically runs toward the patient’s room, but 
panics and instead hides inside a closet where he finds Elliot, who is also hiding from the adrenaline-fueled moment of saving someone’s life. Meanwhile, the scene cuts to Turk, who is already at the patient’s bedside, furiously rubbing the defibrillator’s pads together before shocking him back to life. Stop right there. Did you catch the inaccuracy? If you didn’t, I’ll give you a hint: doctors don’t rub defibrillators together, at least not in the way most medical dramas portray. Rubbing the pads together may look cool, but it’s pointless and can even damage the equipment. The only time rubbing defibrillator pads together makes sense is when a conductive gel is used and needs to be spread, but gel is rarely used anymore. Prime-time doctor dramas are great and they do a good job of entertaining us, but a whole lot of what we see in shows such as Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, House M.D., etc is downright wrong. So let’s take a look at some other events portrayed in medical dramas that don’t actually happen in real life.

Socializing and Romance

This isn’t to say that romances never kindle in the hospital; they can, but hospital dramas tend to over-exaggerate. Do you remember the last time you had sex on the job? Medical television shows make it seem as though sex is occurring in any hospital closet at any given time. Joshua Spanogle, MD, a graduate of Stanford School of Medicine, recalls, “A writing mentor here at Stanford said to me: ‘Now Josh, I must ask this: Is there really that much sex in the hospital? ‘I was thinking that everyone knows that Grey’s Anatomy is not an accurate portrayal of life in the hospital.” However, Sharon Imperl, RN, with Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona, says that the rapport depicted in television shows between the medical staff is somewhat accurate. “Collaboration with each other and trust build a great team. Everyone is not sleeping with each other. When I worked in a teaching hospital, some relationships developed with the medical staff and the nursing staff. These relationships were always kept private.”

Deaths

If the number of patients who die on medical shows actually died in real life, there would be a lot more dead people coming out of hospitals. Israeli communications scholar Amir Hetsroni analyzed one season of each of the popular US hospital dramas ER, Chicago Hope, and Grey’s Anatomy. He found that television patients were drastically more likely to die than patients in real life. Whereas the mortality rate in real hospitals is 5%, it’s 17.5% in TV hospitals. He also found that the dying patients on TV were most likely to be young, seriously injured white men.


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High-Adrenaline Cases/CPR

In reality, doctors don’t see nearly as many high-adrenaline cases during their entire career as their television counterparts may see in under an hour. “On one Grey’s Anatomy episode, a patient comes in with chest pain, and two seconds later, he is rushed to open-heart surgery. That is hardly realistic,” says pediatrician Prasanna Ananth, MD. And during those high-adrenaline cases, CPR is often inaccurately portrayed. According to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, on TV, most patients survive after receiving CPR, but it really only saves lives 5% of the time. However, Suzanne Miller, MD, recalls asking how a patient learned CPR after saving his brother’s life. “He said he saw it on ER,” she said. “He said that’s how they did it on the show—and he saved his brother’s life, so that’s pretty darn good.”

Doctors Don’t Do Everything

When it comes to the responsibilities of doctors, television shows tend to give them much more credit than they actually deserve. On TV, doctors are portrayed as geniuses who can diagnose and treat any condition, operate MRI scanners, analyze blood samples, and perform complex surgery all in the same day. Hospital dramas tend to leave out many important medical roles, such as the radiologist, lab technician, nurse, pharmacist, or specialist surgeon. Ashley Peak, RN, and clinical coordinator of ER services and trauma at Flagstaff Medical Center, agrees that caring for a patient is not a one-man effort. “I love House, although most of these shows drive me crazy because there is no nurse to be found. Have you really ever seen a doctor put in a Foley catheter? PLEASE!”

Things That Are Downright Unrealistic

There are other plotlines in hospital dramas that are, for the sake of entertainment, just downright unrealistic. For example, in House M.D., the main characters often break into patients’ houses to search for clues that may lead them to a diagnosis, and they never ask the patient for permission. This is a serious crime and would simply never, ever happen. In one episode of Grey’s Anatomy, when a patient mysteriously dies, Christina and Izzie perform an unauthorized autopsy against family wishes. Their attending physician catches them red-handed (literally), but lets it slide after they were proven right about their theory on why he died. In reality, no one in the field, not even an intern, would get away with something like this.

While medical television shows can sometimes stray far from the truth, there’s no doubt that medical professionals love them anyway. They can be so unrealistic that those working in hospitals and doctor’s offices don’t feel like they are watching a show about their own job, which would just be exhausting after an 18-hour shift in the OR However, medical student Graham Walker thinks that it wouldn’t hurt the entertainment value of medical dramas if they were a little more factual. “I feel like there are simple things that wouldn’t have any detrimental effect to the entertainment quality of the show—that would barely even change dialogue—that could provide subconscious education to the lay public.”

But hey, it’s just TV, right?

Reference

  1. Allgeyer K. ER vs. ‘ER’: are medical TV shows true to life as an ED nurse? Working Nurse website. http://www.workingnurse.com/articles/ER-vs-ER-Are-Medical-TV-Shows-True-to-Life-as-an-ED-Nurse.
  2. Baker M. Poking holes in TV medical dramas—and loving it. Stanford School of Medicine website. Fall 2007. http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2007fall/med-tv.html.
  3. Diem SJ, Lantos JD, Tulsky JA. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television: miracles and misinformation. N Engl J Med. 1996;334:1578-1582. http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM199606133342406.
  4. Dubner SJ. If you must be hospitalized, television is not the place. Freakonomics website. December 17, 2010. http://freakonomics.com/2010/12/17/if-you-must-be-hospitalized-television-is-not-the-place.
  5. Farrimond S. The top 10 medical TV myths. Doctor Stu’s Blog website. January 19, 2011. http://realdoctorstu.com/2011/01/19/the-top-10-medical-tv-myths.