Medicine in the Media

Amy Julian

Imagine: you are a patient, lying in pain on a gurney in the emergency room at a local hospital. You overhear doctors and orderlies saying something about performing surgery to fix a problem with your heart. The surgery involves intricate navigation of your pericardial cavity amidst a vast network of blood vessels, muscles, and other life-preserving structures. There’s not much time left to talk without beginning surgery; it is a life or death procedure. Faintly through your blurring vision, you see a man coming toward you with his surgical scrubs on ready to save you life. And then, you recognize that the man coming towards you is none other than Patrick Dempsey.

And cut! Phew, that was a close one for the extra hired to play the victim of such a horrible fate. Luckily, as Dr. McDreamy goes off for hair and make-up retouches, you are able to walk around like nothing happened. Alas, you are simply on the set of the smash hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy”.

With the popularity of medical television programs on network TV (FOX is premiering the fifth season of “House” this Tuesday while “Grey’s Anatomy” plans to launch its fifth season on September 25) it’s no wonder that healthcare and medicine are said to be some of the fastest-growing job markets. However, careers in medicine and healthcare also boast some of the highest burnout rates. And pre-med and nursing programs in colleges are experiencing alarmingly high dropout rates. Disillusioned pre-med or nursing students are fast to learn that what makes for good television may not accurately portray the issues or challenges someone in a similar, real-life situation would find themselves.

So what is it that draws millions of viewers in week after week? Do we as viewers eat up the medical jargon and claim to be more knowledgeable after watching these shows, simply because Dr. House talks about excessive vasodilatation (excess in blood flow due to the opening of blood vessels) within the middle mediastinum (essentially, the heart region)? How much of what we see on television accurately portrays the medical profession, and is the medical profession, in turn, suffering from the largely distorted, and many times inaccurate, knowledge gained from tuning in and tuning out for an hour every week?

Television programs, especially those following fictional, dramatic plotlines, generally aren’t considered the best source of truthful and complete information. I mean, if that were the case, all we’d need to do is send a cheerleader and Jack Bauer over to the Middle East and essentially “save the world.” If we know that some, if not most, television shows are largely fictitious, why are we so quick to swallow the elixir that these medical “doctors” are dispensing? “It’s the appearance of realism that contributes to the appeal of these shows,” agree professors of American Studies Rachel Rubins and Judith Smith. Rubins is a graduate and undergraduate professor who specializes in popular culture, while Smith focuses on teaching a Capstone on the cultural history of US media. Both Rubins and Smith assent that while some programs, like ER, portray a slightly more realistic lens into the world of medicine, “shows like Grey’s Anatomy are closer to the fantasy world of soap opera.”

As the general public gathers more information, the integrity and strength of a doctoral degree continues to be challenged. With more information being presented before them, patients are now coming up with their own diagnoses based upon what they may have seen or heard from that overpaid celebrity doctor. “Many doctors complain that patients come to appointments armed with information gleaned from television medicine,” Rubins and Smith explain, “and it leads to [the patient] questioning medical judgments that were derived from intensive and specialized medical training.”

The presence of medicine and the portrayal of the healthcare professional on television is by no means a bad thing. In fact, it was the countless episodes of “House”, combined with science courses and NOVA documentaries, that sparked my interest to learn more about medicine and our bodies-I’m now on track to get my nursing degree. The audiences of these shows (myself included) need to make sure that the programs are watched with a slight degree of caution, as to not overgeneralize or oversimplify the incredibly complex medical profession. Just because we see someone on television describing an illness does not mean we have the authority to diagnose it. And the practices at many doctors’ offices, at least not mine, are not run in the same promiscuous and unprofessional manner as Seattle Grace Hospital.

One thing’s for sure, however. Those who put heavy stock in the medical dramas on television these days are in for a big disappointment the next time they frequent a hospital: “People (who) get used to the fast pace of medical action on TV shows,” warn Rubins and Smith, “will be very disappointed in the pace of actual medical encounters and procedures.”