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‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Distorts Public Perceptions of What Trauma Care Is

In Grey's Anatomy's magical world of hot doctors, you both die and recover more quickly.

ABC

The television drama Grey’s Anatomy may give patients unrealistic expectations about emergency medical care—beyond the notion that all doctors are charismatic. Now, a new study shows that the long-running show has been perpetuating false perceptions about the realities of trauma for 14 seasons, potentially skewing patient expectations about their likely medial outcomes. 

This isn’t the first time scientists have analyzed how medical dramas stack up against reality. One of the earliest of these studies, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1996, looked at incidences of using cardiopulmonary resuscitation to treat cardiac arrest featured in episodes of ER, Chicago Hope, and Rescue 911 and found that the survival rate on television was significantly higher than even the most optimistic estimates. Another 2013 study shows that blood transfusions are misrepresented most of the time on television, and most recently researchers found that CPR success rates depicted in House and Grey’s Anatomy were severely inflated.

But of course TV doctors aren’t real, and dramatic renderings of medicine are going to get details wrong. “Although realism is an integral element to the success of a television drama set in a contemporary workplace, be it a hospital or police department, the requirements for dramatic effect demand a focus on the exceptional rather than the mundane,” the study authors recognize.

The question is how these inaccuracies affect real-world health care.  

Researchers compared 290 fictional Grey’s Anatomy patients to the records of 4,812 real-life patients who sustained similar injuries, obtained from the 2012 National Trauma Databank. They found that Grey’s overstated negative outcomes with traumatic injuries—the death rate was three times higher. And nearly 75 percent of fictional patients were taken immediately from the ER to the operating room (in reality, that figure would be closer to 25 percent). Fictional patients with serious injuries also required less than a week of recovery in the hospital, while this is only true for 20 percent of real patients. So in the land of hot doctors, you both die and recover more quickly.

Researchers worry that these portrayals of emergency care could lead to “divergence of patient expectations from reality” which may “contribute to lower levels of satisfaction.” However, without actually studying patients’ expectations and television consumption, it’s impossible to say for sure.

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While it’s plausible that patients expect faster recoveries (and more deaths from traumatic injuries) because of television, it’s similarly likely that dissatisfied patients report their frustrations with hospital care for other reasons. Even when everything goes smoothly, a hospital bed isn’t a great place to be. And the fact that Meredith Grey isn’t on call is probably only part of the problem.