Don’t expect McDreamy at the hospital

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TV provides unrealistic expectations of emergency healthcare, contributing to lower levels of patient satisfaction, says a new study

Sure, go ahead and daydream about those gorgeous Hollywood doctors and their drama-filled lives – but don’t expect the rapidity of on-screen emergency healthcare or recovery in real life.

Research published in the BMJ has compared the portrayal of trauma sustained by 290 fictional patients in the first 12 seasons (2005-16) of the US hit series Grey’s Anatomy to real-life injuries sustained by almost 5,000 patients in the 2012 US National Trauma Databank.

The death rate was three times higher in Grey’s Anatomy and three-quarters were rushed directly to the operating theatre, compared to just a quarter in real-life cases.

Researchers from the Department of Surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Arizona, US, were most concerned about the representation of recovery time for those with serious injuries, which was much shorter for the televised cases.

For severely injured survivors, hospital length of stay was less than one week for 50% of TV patients versus 20% in the real-life sample (P<0.0001).

“The public’s familiarity with the real-life hospital course and recovery from major injury is limited to personal experience, so it is conceivable that, for many, expectations are largely shaped by the portrayal of traumatic injury on television,” say the authors.

“Given the suddenness of physical trauma, there is no opportunity to pursue reputable sources of medical information to help prepare one for a hospital stay and/or operative procedure (unlike in the setting of other illnesses, such as cancer), resulting in further reliance on perceptions from mass media.”

The authors cite a concept called “cultivation theory”, which suggests that the portrayal of social reality on television ultimately shapes the viewer’s perception of social reality in real life.

“The balancing act between the presentation of the realistic and the dramatic can actually result in a skewed perception of reality among television viewers,” they say.

“As a result of the artistic license taken with the presentation of doctors, patients, and illness on television, viewers of medical dramas may develop a distorted perspective regarding prevalent health issues in the real world.”

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