How TV Dramas Distort Patient Expectations

February 22, 2021

Must-watch medical dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy blur the line between fact and fiction. Patients roll from ambulance to Emergency Room to surgery in a matter of minutes. They recover from major trauma in a few days and within a week are convalescing at home surrounded by doting family.

While spellbinding, these shows can set unrealistic expectations for real-life trauma patients who enter an actual hospital, according to a recent study in BMJ (British Medical Journal). Researchers analyzed 269 episodes of Grey's Anatomy and concluded TV’s portrayal of rapid recovery in trauma patients could distort real-life perceptions of care.

“There is disconnect between what people see on TV and what really happens in our hospitals,” says Dr. Jeffery L. Johnson, a board-certified surgeon with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg Medical Group Trauma & Critical Care Surgery. “When patients don’t have the same experience, it can be a rude awakening at how different Hollywood’s version is from real life.”

The Stats: TV vs. Real Life

On Grey’s Anatomy, for example, the study found 71 percent of patients go straight from the Emergency Room to the operating room, compared to 25 percent of real-life patients. On the flip side, TV trauma patients die more often. At 22 percent, their mortality rate is three times higher than in real life.

“I am happy to report the vast majority of our patients get better and go home,” says Dr. Johnson, who works at Pinellas County’s only state-accredited Level II Adult Trauma Center. “They just might not go home immediately, like they do on TV. Hollywood compresses a story to fit in a time slot.”

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