New research has diagnosed a problem with television medical dramas.
A study published Monday in the journal Trauma Surgery & Acute Care says that medical dramas — Grey’s Anatomy, specifically — “may cultivate false expectations among patients and their families” when it comes to the realities of medical care, treatment and recovery.
That conclusion isn’t altogether unexpected, given that Grey’s Anatomy is notorious for its dramatic cases. Over the show’s 14-and-counting seasons, patients have accidentally swallowed bombs, been skewered by trees and poles, become encased in hardening cement and much more. Nonetheless, study author Dr. Jordan Weinberg, trauma medical director at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Az., says it’s important for both patients and physicians to be aware of the subconscious effect of medical shows.
“Patient satisfaction is a big deal these days. It’s become a measure of quality,” Weinberg says. “If there’s a real gap between [expectation and reality], it makes it a relatively poor experience for the patient, and it transfers to a poor experience for the nurses and doctors trying to take care of this patient who feels very frustrated.”
For the study, two trauma doctors and a nurse practitioner watched all 269 episodes from Grey’s Anatomy‘s first 12 seasons. They looked specifically at the 290 trauma patients who visit Seattle Grace/Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital in these episodes, recording data about their demographics, admission patterns, length of stay, injury severity and outcomes. They then compared those observations with real patient data from the National Trauma Databank.
The researchers found a number of disparities. Compared to real trauma patients, Seattle Grace’s cases tended to be more severe and progress more quickly from the emergency department to the operating room. They also resulted in more binary conclusions: People on the show tended either to die or stay in the hospital for a relatively short time before being discharged directly home. 22% of trauma patients on Grey’s Anatomy didn’t survive, compared to 7% of the comparison group. In reality, many trauma patients face a long, tedious road to recovery before they can return home, Weinberg notes.
While the circumstances on medical dramas may be dubious, most shows do keep doctors and medical consultants on staff to provide feedback and keep depictions of medicine as accurate as possible, says Dr. Roshan Sethi, a third-year resident in the Harvard Radiation Oncology Program and a past consultant and writer for The Resident, Black Box and Code Black.
Sethi says the truth does get stretched sometimes — procedures are compressed for time, for example, or doctors stray further from their specialty than they would in real life — but writers are cognizant of the public impact of their work.
“I personally draw the line at inaccuracies that could hurt a viewer,” Sethi says. “For example, saying smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer would be irresponsible.”
Weinberg, who wasn’t a Grey’s watcher before the study, agrees that medical shows get a lot right, from what it’s like in a busy ER to how the inside of the operating room looks. In the end, he says, there’s no real harm in following the saga of Dr. Meredith Grey — as long as you take it with a grain of salt.
“We don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy to be educated. We watch it for entertainment value,” Weinberg says. “Within the constraints of what they’re trying to do, which is entertain people, they actually do a very good job of achieving reality.”