Who Let The Doc Out?! #023: Here are 4 things that medical TV shows get absolutely right!

For several years, medical dramas have held a steadfast place in the television ladder, holding viewers’ attention with their depictions of the lives of medical practitioners and the conditions they treat.

Many of these shows have come under fire for their unrealistic portrayals of the goings-on of hospitals and the people who work in them, forgoing accuracy in favor of drama. However, there are a few things that they do get right, according to medical professionals.

1. Medical work is incredibly stressful

One thing medical shows get absolutely right is their portrayal of medical work as hectic, stressful, and sometimes damaging. Many doctors and nurses routinely work long hours, sometimes having to take on grueling 36-hour shifts in high patient load situations, and many of these shows capture that. The relationships between superiors and their subordinates can also be quite tense, adding stress to an already hectic work environment.

One of the biggest selling points for the TV show, Scrubs, with many medical professionals is how it manages to accurately portray hospital dynamics and the realities of life as a medical resident. Although the show’s premise is that of a comedy, when you look past its cartoonish aspects, it is quite in tune with the real lives of medical professionals. It even manages to shed some light on the struggles hospitals go through with cutting costs and resource allocation.

2. The medical terminology is usually accurate

Medical TV shows typically bring on a medical consultant to guide the writers and help them create realistic portrayals of medical professionals. For this reason, it is quite rare that you will encounter a medical drama with blatant inaccuracies in medical terminology.

Shows like The Good Doctor and House MD are lauded for their attention to detail when it comes to correctly using medical lingo, including abbreviations and commonly used hospital jargon. It adds a nice layer of believability when the doctor correctly names the test a patient requires.

Some shows take it a step further and actually get the doses for the required medications right. However, I still wouldn’t advise any medical students and interns to use a medical drama as their primary reference for what dose of a medication to give a patient.

3. They depict real medical conditions

While watching a medical TV show, you may hear a character mention a disease like methylmalonic acidemia. Understandably, it may sound made-up to you. It may even sound made-up to a medical professional. However, this is an actual medical condition, albeit an incredibly rare one.

Typically, the medical conditions brought up in medical drama exist in the real world. Some shows like The Good Doctor and House MD commonly mention very rare conditions that many doctors may never see during their careers, but they do exist.

While many of the shows may tweak how well patients recover from certain severe illnesses, and some may manage them questionably, they still get points for using real-life diseases that you can look up in a medical textbook.

4. Hospitals do have a strict hierarchy

Another thing medical shows get right is the strict hierarchy hospitals tend to follow. Although shows like Grey’s Anatomy may take creative liberties with the interactions between superiors and juniors, with some scenes showing a young intern doctor going around a specialist’s back to change a patient’s treatment plan and getting applauded for it – something that would get you dismissed from your residency in some places – the general understanding of the hierarchy remains accurate.

While the hospital administration – with the board and medical director – oversees the general functioning of the hospital, they usually stay out of the wards and will not pop up several times a day while the doctors are rounding. Medical shows usually get this part right.

Residents and interns do get the bulk of the grunt work among the doctors, as the lowest levels on the hierarchy. However, they do not typically carry out complex medical procedures and surgeries on their own without the guidance of a specialist.

Which medical TV shows rank highest for medical accuracy?

When assessing the accuracy of a medical TV show, the things a medical professional will look out for are:

  • Medical terminology
  • Medical procedures
  • Hospital dynamics

The shows that rank highest when it comes to accuracy with medical terminology and information are ER, The Good Doctor, and House MD. New Amsterdam and Chicago Med are applauded for their accurate depictions of medical procedures, and Call the Midwife is a fan favorite for its realistic portrayals of childbirth and midwifery in 1950s London. However, when it comes to overall realism and accuracy, Scrubs scores highest across the board.

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