TV Medical Drama Accuracy FAIL! (In 3 Categories)

by Tera Tuten on April 13, 2011

“It must be true…I saw it on TV,” many non-medical professionals exclaim, after catching some insights on a procedure or disease during a modern medical drama episode.

It’s a refrain heard over and over again, and while many entertaining depictions of life from the ER to the OR employ consultants in the medical industry, there’s no rule that says their advice has to be obeyed.

From entire series’ to reoccurring myths to specific (sometimes brutal) technical blunders, here are a few of the glaring accuracy fails we’ve spotted in three cringe-inducing categories…

TVs most prominent medical shows ranked according to accurate portrayal of real-life hospital situations:

  1. Scrubs Surprisingly, this bumbling live-action cartoon was heralded by doctors and med students as the most true-to-life medical TV series in terms of both technical accuracy and capturing the culture of doctors and interns (more…)
  2. St Elsewhere – Sure, it was easier to remain true to the real-life profession when TV reigned as the supreme medium and ratings were a cakewalk, but the folks at St. Eligius did it with an homage to real medical doctors, nurses and hospitals that’s tough to equal in any decade
  3. ER Despite having the master of researched fiction – Michael Crichton – as its creator and consultant, the team at County General lands just in the middle of the spectrum. (To put it in perspective, though, Crichton is the same person who created Jurassic Park.)
  4. House M.D. Some well-researched plots but also some pretty far-fetched situations you wouldn’t encounter outside the world of fiction. (full medical reviews of each episode…)
  5. Grey’s Anatomy Squarely at the bottom, TV’s most popular medical drama is also heralded by doctors as the least accurate, when it comes to portraying life working at a hospital. As addictive as it is, Grey’s is also by-far the greatest committer of the following sins:

Most common inaccurate portrayals of hospitals and their staff on TV medical dramas:

The TV myth: Doctors operating outside their specialty
The reality: Though shows like ER or Grey’s depict surgeons performing every procedure in the hospital, this just ain’t so. The sheer variety of surgeries in different specialties that doctors perform on these shows is also something you’ll only see on TV.

The TV myth: Doctors doing everything at every step in patient care
The reality: Many patients who are fans of these shows are amazed to see that the nurses in real hospitals seem to do everything. (Usually this appearance is because patients see nurses many times more often than doctors, though it’s also because – unlike on TV– doctors don’t do most of the stuff to patients that looks cool on TV.)

The TV myth: Patients revived just in time for the commercial break
The reality: Though lots of medical dramas let the credits roll right after a dramatic death scored with a melancholy Top 40 ballad, the same shows also rely on just-in-time resuscitations before or after commercial breaks. In reality, flat-lines can’t be solved with paddles, CPR is rarely successful, and hospital resuscitations are successful 5-10% of the time in ideal circumstances.

The TV myth: Every resident leaving the hospital at the same time (often to go have drinks)
The reality: Though this was a favorite of ER and Grey’s, it’s just mathematically impossible. In addition, as one poster on puts it “you aren’t going to meet too many surgeons who tie one on every weeknight to the point of inebriation and are able to show up in the morning ready to work. (Many of the surgeons I know won’t even drink coffee within a day of a surgery because it makes them jittery).”

The TV myth: Doctors hooking up with colleagues on-the-job
The reality: *Ahem* You know which show we’re talking about here…Beyond doctors on almost every post on the web that discusses this laughingly wondering which hospital in America they could work at that would actually allow them enough time to form a romantic relationship with a colleague, such broom closet rendezvous’ would be serious cause for dismissal at pretty much any real-life facility.

Specific medical accuracy FAILs on TV

  • In one Grey’s Anatomy episode, two characters perform an illegal autopsy against a family’s wishes. On the show, the characters are forgiven (instead of arrested) because they discover the patient had a rare genetic disease. Since the Tuskegee tragedy, noted a recent Slate article, doctors have instilled institutional checks to ensure that clinical research is ethical. Unfortunately, many patients may still avoid doctors because now they are afraid of being experimented on after – in their minds – TV fiction confirmed their worst fears.
  • Medical Investigation (NBC, 2004-2005), did the out-in-the-field epidemic detective work of the CDC but were identified as employees of the National Institutes of Health (a federal agency more focused on lab-based science.) Also, the heroes wore leather jackets while checking for a deadly pathogen (*pff!* who needs that mandatory protective gear.)
  • A Canadian study out of Halifax Nova Scotia’s Dartmouth University showed that TV doctors and nurses responded inappropriately to seizures almost half the time: “Television dramas are a potentially powerful method of educating the public about first aid and seizures,” said study author Andrew Moeller. “Our results, showing that television shows inaccurately showed seizure management half the time, are a call to action. People with epilepsy should lobby the television industry to adhere to guidelines for first aid management of seizures.”
  • In another Grey’s episode, Dr. Yang asks a woman to donate her husband’s organs after he dies. Yang tanks in the sensitivity department, dispassionately asking for the husband’s eyes and skin, then runs out of the room as the wife begins to cry. “The scene is rife with errors that could damage public perception of organ donation,” noted the same Slate piece. As it turns out, Yang is jockeying for the husband’s organs because another patient – a close friend of the chief of surgery – is dying from liver failure and will be saved if the wife agrees. In real life, hospitals go to great lengths to prevent these types of conflicts of interest, barring doctors from approaching patients and designating statewide organizations (rather than individual hospitals) to distribute organs.

That’s not all…

More TV medical myths:

New program pairs U.S. health officials with Hollywood writers:

Keeping medicine on TV real:


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alycia Rivet 05.09.11 at 2:08 pm

This is a great post! I think it’s important to realize that while medical dramas on television are compelling and engaging, the real life heroes have less fun and are under REAL pressure to save REAL lives. A shout out to all the healthcare professionals out there who keep it real (:

Janie 07.05.16 at 4:41 pm

My personal favorites are St. Elsewhere, ER and House. Scrubs was good but Grey’s Anatomy it’s a joke.


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