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Medical TV: Who Did Their Research?

Television often takes liberties with how healthcare actually works, but every so often a show will get it right.


Put in enough time as a nurse or other healthcare professional, and inevitably someone will ask: Do you watch “House”? What do you think of “ER”? Is being in a hospital like “General Hospital”?


Healthcare makes for great TV. A show set in a hospital will have an ensemble cast of experts who, every single episode, will face potentially life-or-death situations.


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What medical TV gets wrong

Doctors are often the focal points of medical TV, but they are often portrayed doing tasks normally performed by nurses. “House” is particularly bad about this one. Dr. House has been shown taking blood samples, operating an MRI scanner, performing his own lab tests, and otherwise lavishing far more attention on his patients than most MDs actually do. This omits the work of hardworking medical assistants, lab techs, and nurses, who do many of the specialized tasks in a hospital.


Hospital dramas almost always eliminate the administrative side of healthcare. You’ll almost never see someone calling up an insurance company on “ER” or “General Hospital,” and shows almost never portray healthcare workers documenting necessary information. Tasks like that may not be as dramatic as dealing with a mysterious disease or life-or-death surgery, but making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed is a big part of any healthcare worker’s day.


Shows like “ER” also gloss over the majority of patients that a hospital will see — those that don’t show up with gaping wounds or awful injuries. Not everyone who shows up at the emergency room arrives because of a car crash or gunshot wound. Any ER nurse can tell you that plenty of patients show up with fairly minor injuries that could have been dealt with elsewhere.


Also, scrubs don’t fit nearly as snugly or as well as they do on most shows. Very few healthcare workers look as stylish as the cast of “Grey’s Anatomy.”


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What medical TV gets right

No medical shows are all that accurate, but a few have clearly put in a little more effort into accurately portraying what healthcare is actually like. “ER” may have cut a corner or two when it came to accuracy, but it did get a very important thing right: Working in a hospital is exciting, challenging, and interesting. Also, when that show debuted in 1994, a lot of critics remarked upon how bloody it was. Surgery can be like that. Veterans of emergency rooms and trauma wards can tell you that you have to be tough to work in an environment like that. It’s not for the squeamish.


One show that rather oddly stands apart from the legion of medical dramas is “Scrubs,” which ran from 2001 to 2009. “Scrubs” was a workplace sitcom, and as such it was about interpersonal relationships as opposed to a constant stream of hard cases or problem patients entering the hospital. It also focused on careerism among doctors, office politics among different departments, and the hopes and anxieties of healthcare providers. For good or ill, that is something that happens in hospitals all the time.


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Healthcare is not TV

“Scrubs” excelled as a medical show because it humanized healthcare. While it’s true that healthcare workers will encounter dramatic or vexing problems, much of the time they’ll know what to do, and they’ll do it in the kind of routine manner that everyone does at their job. Providing healthcare is meaningful, but not every patient is a “House”-esque mystery. Often, people arrive at the hospital and they know exactly what ails them.


Also, not all problems are solved at the last minute, or with a final revelation that reveals what the diagnosis is. The vast majority of healthcare is more about hard work and putting in time than it is about being a detective or superhero. Sometimes, administering care can be kind of routine, and patients will have to stick to a schedule of treatment that wouldn’t make dramatic heroics. That might not make for good TV, but it’s ultimately more important.


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Medical TV: Who Did Their Research?