Brandon Cohen


July 17, 2018

From its inception, broadcast television has been full of dramas and comedies centered on hospitals, doctors, and nurses. A recent article by graduating medical students Jesse Handler and Julia M. Agee examined The Resident, a program that focuses on the melodramatic goings-on at a hospital in Atlanta. Handler and Agee warned that the show is so blatantly unrealistic and so supportive of unethical practices that it has the potential to cause genuine harm. This article and a follow-up poll generated a spirited discussion from medical professionals.

Many tried to soothe the alarmed students. A primary care physician commented, "It's a TV show. It's just entertainment."

Another professional questioned the article writers' use of the very limited free hours in a medical student's day:

So with the minimal time you have for recreation and recuperation, you chose to watch TV and were so offended by what you watched, you wrote an article about it...pick your battles, young doctor, there are many more to come.

An internist also did not see a problem: "It's Hollywood. Give the show a break; it's not a documentary."

But another healthcare professional shot back: "How many viewers know the difference [between fact and fiction]?"

A medical administrator lamented the debasement of the profession: "It's sad that medicine has been reduced to entertainment."

A primary care physician was also concerned and pointed out some of the ways these shows could affect the public:

Working in an ER, the biggest problem is patient expectations. They expect to be rushed in, get an order set completed in five minutes, imaging in three minutes, and up to the ward or the OR because that's what they see on TV every day. No matter how much I explain that it is not reality, it rarely sinks in.

And a nurse reminded readers that "these dramas don't portray nurses accurately, either!"

In the accompanying poll, a majority of healthcare professionals said that medical shows rarely or never depicted real-life protocol or staff interactions. Yet, in that same poll, 96% of respondents claimed to watch such programs. Some had no problem admitting that they enjoyed medical TV. A registered nurse saw it as light entertainment, the way it was most likely intended:

Sometimes I just like watching medical shows as a getaway or as how I would like things to be. [I'm] waiting for the futuristic show where everyone is cured and nothing ever goes wrong. But that is my fantasy.

The conversation then broadened to make distinctions between different shows and different eras. A physician assistant saw modern shows as an improvement on what came before:

Good thing you missed the doctor shows from waaaaaay back. [I'm] thinking Marcus Welby, MD, where everyone was healed in the 45-minute show with no complications. Due to that TV show, patients and families were shocked, shocked I tell you, that people died and/or didn't recover to be able to play golf the day after being released from the hospital after a major medical event.

But another medical professional preferred the old-fashioned storytelling:

While not realistic, in that almost everyone recovered within one episode, those [older programs] were, at least, wholesome shows, where the doctors were respected and were portrayed as genuinely caring about their patients.

A still from the NBC television show Scrubs (2001-2010), with actors Zach Braff and Donald Faison. Photo: Dean Hendler/NBC-TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

More than a few respondents spoke up for the comedy Scrubs. One pharmacist wrote:

I tell everyone that Scrubs was the most realistic medical show. Medical stuff and patient problems are serious, so my interactions with my colleagues tend to be much more lighthearted than any of the other intense medical dramas.

In the accompanying poll, the most popular program of all time with responding healthcare professionals was the long-running hit ER. Several commenters wrote hearty endorsements of the show. One physician wrote:

Michael Crichton, MD, created it and advised early on. Some of the newer shows are trying so hard to capitalize on current political issues that are frankly ridiculous. It's as if the news media is moonlighting as TV screenwriters since the unsubstantiated, biased garbage they put in the news feed just isn't enough. Bring back ER!

A primary care physician enjoyed using the tropes of steamy medical melodrama to enliven patient experiences at his emergency room:

Sometimes, just for fun . . . I might say, "Nurse so and so and I need a little private time in the supply closet (hint, hint), we'll be back . . ." Of course, the nurse is informed in advance of the shenanigans so she plays along and whispers to the patient in her best Grey's Anatomy voice, "Oh, that doctor is sooo hot." And I do the same, vice versa. It helps the patients relax, builds rapport, and is therapeutic for all concerned, while alleviating stress and burnout.

The final word goes to a pediatrician, who offered pithy medical advice:

Word to the wise: Don't watch medical TV shows; they may be hazardous to your mental health!!

See the entire discussion in the article and the follow-up poll.

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