'Scalpel! STAT!' Medical shows warping patients' sense of reality

Grey's Anatomy is one of the most popular medical dramas of all time. Source: Flikr

Medical shows have been a staple on TV screens for decades, but all those hours of sitting on the couch glued to Hawkeye and Trapper’s adventures on M.A.S.H have apparently warped out perception of reality when it comes to hospital stays. 

A new study, published in the Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open journal, says viewers should take onscreen scenarios in medical shows with a grain of salt, because they’re mostly full of errors.

Since 42 per cent of older adults say that they get their medical information from TV, researchers from St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Arizona were keen to understand just how much these programs affected our perception of real-life hospital stays. After watching 269 episodes of popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, researchers found many of the story lines were riddled with errors, having sacrificed the facts for ratings, and warned that patients may be shocked when they discover hospitals don’t usually occur the same way as depicted on TV. 

The research team compared 290 trauma patients on Grey’s Anatomy with 4,812 real-life patients, whose data was gathered from the 2012 National Trauma Databank National Program Sample.

In each episode, researchers assessed the fictional patient’s age and gender, their injury, the outcome of surgery and length of stay in hospital. Because of the nature of a TV show, it wasn’t always possible to get specific information, so researchers needed to factor in other plot lines to determine recovery times.

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They found that 71 per cent of TV patients were taken directly to the operating room after being rushed to an emergency room, while this happened to just 25 per cent of patients in real life.

They also found that a disproportionate amount of patients died in the show from their injuries. On TV, 22 per cent of patients died, while in real life only 7 per cent of patients didn’t make it. In addition, 50 per cent of patients with severe injuries in a TV show were less likely to stay in hospital for more than a week, compared to the 20 per cent of patients in the real life sample.

“The balancing act between the presentation of the realistic and the dramatic can actually result in a skewed perception of reality among television viewers,” the study’s authors wrote.

“… viewers of medical dramas may develop a distorted perspective regarding prevalent health issues in the real world.”

The team noted that medical TV shows have a “profound effect on patient’s medical knowledge and decision-making” and cited previous studies that found older adults use television as a primary resource for medical information, causing overly optimistic predictions of survival rates after cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

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The study’s authors noted that while most of these shows do everything they can to make scenes as realistic as possible, they often focused on extreme cases because they’re more entertaining to watch.

They added that even simple things, such as face masks and glasses, were ditched on TV so audiences could follow plots easier and identify prominent characters, rather than get a realistic understanding of hour the medical industry works.

Do you watch medical dramas? What is the main way you get your health or medical information?