The Least and Most Accurate Medical Shows

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“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, no rule says their advice has to be obeyed.

Here are TV’s most prominent medical shows ranked from the least to the most accurate portrayal of real-life hospital situations.

5 Medical Shows Ranked By Accuracy

5. Greys 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. For example, in one of the episodes, a doctor asks a patient for the organs of their deceased spouse. In reality, there is state legislation and strict protocol for organ donations that prevents doctors from ever approaching patients directly.

4. House M.D.

Some well-researched plots but also some pretty far-fetched situations you wouldn’t encounter outside the world of fiction. One major inaccuracy occurs during episode 6 of season 6 when a “truth serum” is given in addition to an MRI to see if a patient was telling the truth. You can find full medical reviews for each episode here.

3. ER

Despite having real doctors help create ideas for the show, the team at County General lands just in the middle of our list. One of the show’s biggest flaws was the constant use of CPR. Not only was it often done correctly, but it was also portrayed as being highly effective, which is unfortunately not the case.

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.

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…).

Most Common Medical Mistakes in TV Shows

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 inpatient 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. Also, as one poster on http://forums.studentdoctor.net/ 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 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 allow them enough time to form a romantic relationship with a colleague, such broom closet rendezvous’ would be a 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. 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.

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.”

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Tera Rowland
Contributor Tera Rowland

Tera Rowland is the vice president of Soliant and has worked in the healthcare staffing industry for almost 20 years in public relations, social media, marketing and operations. In addition to Soliant, Tera worked at the Mayo Clinic as an internal communication manager and for the Children’s Miracle Network. She is a member of the American Marketing Association and the American Staffing Association. Also, Tera has served on the board of directors for the Jacksonville Women’s Leadership Forum as part of the communication committee. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Relations as well as a Master of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of North Florida and has been published in the Huffington Post, Healthcare Finance News, Healthcare Traveler Magazine, and Scrubs Magazine. Make sure to read the rest of Tera's blogs!