Who Let The Doc Out?! #022: Here are 5 things that medical TV shows get absolutely wrong!

If you enjoy watching TV, then you have probably watched a couple of medical shows. Since the 1990s, when George Clooney gripped the attention of audiences across the world in ER, medical dramas have seen a steady increase in popularity that does not seem to be dipping any time soon.

And if you are not a medical professional, these shows are probably your easiest way of getting a glimpse into the lives of the people who keep hospitals running. However, medical dramas have become something of a nightmare for many medical professionals. They are often fraught with blatant inaccuracies which dramatically alter patient expectations, a phenomenon physicians are calling The Grey’s Anatomy Effect.

In this article, we will take a look at some of the things medical TV shows get absolutely wrong.

1. Defibrillators do not bring the dead back to life

You have probably encountered this scenario countless times on medical TV shows; a patient “flatlines”, and a doctor or nurse brings out the magical defibrillator, charges it up, yells, “Clear”, and voila! The patient returns to life with a dramatic gasp.

Unfortunately, that is not what happens in real life. Defibrillators cannot restart a heart that has stopped beating – a condition called asystole. They only work to correct abnormal heart rhythms that occur during cardiac arrest. These rhythms are called arrhythmias.

It would be nice to be able to shock a patient’s heart back to life every time it stopped. Unfortunately, when a patient’s heart has stopped beating, our best bet is always to start chest compressions and use particular medications to try and get it started again.

2. Residents do not have time to socialize

Contrary to the portrayals of resident life in shows like The Resident and Grey’s Anatomy, residents and interns do not have much free time for themselves. Most of their time is spent on the ward following up on patient results and treatment plans. A huge chunk of their time also goes to studies.

It is therefore unlikely that the residents at your hospital will be sneaking off to have sex in the break rooms every couple of hours or gathering to gossip about the attending physicians. They simply do not have the time.

3. Paperwork is a big deal

Most medical dramas do not show the doctors filling out the mounds of patient paperwork they have to deal with on a daily basis. I imagine it cannot be entertaining to watch a doctor writing a patient report.

But paperwork is a central part of a doctor’s work at the hospital. Patients’ details, histories, examination findings, and investigation reports all have to be meticulously filled and filed away. Insurance details are also a big part of the paperwork doctors deal with every day.

4. Diagnosing illnesses is not always easy

The entire premise of House MD is Dr. Gregory House, a medical sleuth, almost magically diagnosing strange patient conditions by simply looking at the patient or asking a couple of simple questions. The Good Doctor follows Dr. Shaun Murphy, a gifted young doctor on the autism spectrum, who often makes unexpected diagnoses simply by virtue of his extraordinary memory and deductive skills.

While this is definitely more exciting and suited for television, they are simply not realistic. Making diagnoses is typically a systematic process with history taking, physical examination, and laboratory and radiological investigations when necessary.

Doctors are not all-knowing and will sometimes need to make consultations with specialists in other fields when faced with a difficult case. Medicine is also a super specialized field, and doctors do not jump from one field to another, delivering a baby one day and managing a liver cirrhosis patient the next, the way medical shows portray.

5. CPR is not glamorous, and it is not always successful

Many medical dramas utilize CPR as a dramatic device. But the way most of them go about it is almost laughable. From inaccuracies in timing and force of chest compressions to misuse of devices and medications, CPR in medical TV shows is a train wreck.

Much like the defibrillator trope, CPR in medical shows is shown to magically resuscitate most of the people on whom it is performed when the gruesome reality is that only 40% of patients who receive CPR in a hospital setting are successfully resuscitated, and only half of those make it to discharge.

Medical TV shows: entertainment or education?

While some medical TV shows may stick to the medical advisors’ script and offer nearly 100% accuracy, the vast majority of them are happy to sacrifice accuracy for entertainment value. So, are medical TV shows the best source for medical information? Absolutely not. But are they incredibly entertaining? Definitely.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan