Many of us have a favorite medical drama we look forward to watching each week. Maybe it’s “Chicago Med,” “The Resident” or “New Amsterdam?” These shows have all the ingredients for Must See TV, filled with drama, romance and heart-wrenching, lifesaving scenes. But as a senior surgeon with a law degree, and now a hospital operations executive, I can’t help but notice the medical inaccuracies and safety issues portrayed in these fictional hospitals.
These sensational shows have “Hollywood-ized” the health care experience. Most are a misrepresentation of life in a hospital, where a number of plot points would, in reality, put patients and care providers at risk. Many situations that play out on screen would prove disastrous for doctors and patients in the real world, both medically and ethically.
Here are a few things that leave me smiling and shaking my head when I tune in.
Medical staff skip the protocols to perform unrealistic acts.
Meredith Grey from “Grey’s Anatomy” performed surgery solo as a resident. A student in “The Resident” was left alone to run the ER. And a trainee on “House” performed eye surgery well beyond her scope. Rest assured, this is not the protocol in a real hospital. In my current position at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center (MMMC), I am charged with ensuring there is a level of experience, a chain of command, and certifications are completed before our providers take patients’ health into their own hands.
And forget about a solo doctor diagnosing you, performing surgery, and then sending you on your way. In reality, you will almost always have multiple professionals with different experiences and specialties provide counsel on your specific health concerns and course of action. Residents, nurses and doctors are heavily supervised, a practice put into place to protect patients and physicians — something not always accurately portrayed on TV. When writers overlook these realities, the scenes create unrealistic expectations for the roles and responsibilities of care providers, patients and families.
Dramatic moments put safety and quality on the back burner.
These actors turned medical staff share one unsanitary practice in common: failing to cover their mouths as they clean their hands before surgery. These scenes are typically a chance for the doctors to trade dramatic dialogue before operating on a patient. But no amount of hand washing or glove wearing would compensate for the germs transferred from medical staff’s uncovered mouths before they step into surgery.
Then, when television’s doctors and nurses head into the O.R. with their masks off, they often seem to be meeting their patient for the first time. If you’ve ever stayed in the hospital, you’ll likely recall doctors and nurses checking your name, date of birth, and wrist tag dozens of times throughout the visit. While this repetition doesn’t make for great T.V., it does ensure that you receive the care you need—not the treatment plan meant for another patient due to an identification mix-up,
Lastly, while time is of the essence on a 60-minute show and in a real-life emergency department, the timing of medical procedures on T.V. is often sped up to the point of absurdity. On Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith may perform an emergency operation in a matter of five minutes. In reality, between intake, anesthesia, proper protocol and the procedure itself would take an hour, at minimum.
First aid care is misrepresented.
It’s disturbing for health care providers to watch TV doctors incorrectly stabilize patients under care for seizures or perform CPR. While both of these scenarios should be left to professionals if the situation allows, their portrayal on TV might inform non-health care professionals how to administer care in an emergency.
A study conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University, Halifax, found that nurses and doctors in episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” “ER” and “House” responded inappropriately to seizures almost half the time. Misrepresenting these responses on TV gives people a false impression on how to respond in a crisis and might lead them to provide care that could do more harm than good.
Knowing the proper CPR and seizure protocols can increase the chances of a patient’s survival, so make sure you become certified in the correct techniques. Many local hospitals — including MMMC — offer free instructional classes for people of all ages as a community resource.
We see chronic illnesses every day, but chronic illnesses don’t make for “Must See TV.”
Patient after patient on shows like “The Good Doctor” survive cardiac arrest when the star doctor yells “Clear!,” but the truth is that serious, complex conditions like this are a substantial public health threat with a high nationwide mortality rate if not caught early enough. While emergency surgeries are a dramatic way to portray television doctors as “heroes,” the goal of all medical professionals is to prevent those surgeries in the first place through consistent preventative care.
A 2014 study published in Human Communication Research found that heavy viewers of medical dramas tend to underestimate the seriousness of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and lung disease. Because sensationalized emergencies and rare diseases take the forefront in many of the episodes, they perpetuate a disproportionate view of the health issues most people face in real life.
On TV, heart problems are almost always depicted as sudden and primary, resulting from dramatic events like a gunshot wound, drowning or a high-speed chase. In reality, statistics published in Circulation Research show sudden deaths from cardiac arrests account for only 15 to 20 percent of all deaths.
Patients armed with the right information have the power to take preventative action. As such, it’s important to maintain regular, consistent care, avoid safety hazards and request a heart health check at your next wellness visit.
Frederick Finelli, M.D., J.D.
Vice President of Medical Affairs at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center