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Thu, 02/21/2013

What We Can Learn From Medical Drama TV Shows

Medical Dramas are among the most popular television shows – although it seems this has come to an end. Shows like award-winning “Grey's Anatomy” or – when it was still aired - “House M.D.” have enormous ratings. But why is that so? And do people learn something about the work of a doctor or the daily routine in a hospital from TV shows?

In an article on the BBC website Prof George Ikkos, president of the UK's Royal Society of Medicine's psychiatry section, says it has more to do with learning about ourselves from other people. But he also acknowledges that medical dramas “do give information that is helpful. I would not want to discourage them."

In an op-ed article Khalid Al Aboud, M.D. from the Department of Pathology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC, USA, put together some opinions about medical dramas and lists some of the most popular ones. Unfortunately he does not make clear what his view – as a doctor – is about the medical accuracy of those shows. So I only included his article in this blog-post because of the sources he lists which can help you to explore the topic further.

But maybe accuracy of the depicted procedures is only important in a broader sense. The intention of TV shows is not to train audiences to become doctors although after watching them a lot of people are able to ask more specific medical questions, but on the other hand some also start to diagnose themselves with illnesses they have just seen in the latest episode. I think the most important aim of those shows is to convey to the audience a feeling and better understanding about what is going on in a hospital, especially in a situation of emergency when doctors and staff have to make quick, life depending decisions. Remember when “E.R.”, the show in which George Clooney played a pediatrician, a role that eventually made him world-famous, hit the airwaves? It was critically acclaimed for it realistic portrayal of the daily work in an emergency room. The camera was hand held and the action scenes were very little edited. The scenes looked more like a documentary filmed under gross circumstances. This show probably showed for the very first time audiences worldwide what it means to work in an E.R.: fighting against time to safe lives, working for hours and days without end, dealing with hysteric people afraid for their or their relatives or friends lives, dealing with colleagues and superiors that either envy, love or hate you.

Later on, “Chicago Hope” came to the small screen showing the daily life and love of the doctors in the operating theatres. Later it was followed by “Grey's Anatomy” and “House M.D.” two outstanding medical dramas, that have not been topped yet – except of course by “Scrubs” but that is a sitcom. “Grey” and “House” achieved two different understandings for medical personnel – apart that the characters in those shows are simply intriguing and loveable and if not, as in the case of Greg House himself, the audience can at leat understand and relate to him. So what is it then? With “Grey” it definitely is the portrayal of a group of young people with a dream. A dream which can not always be brought in line with personal happiness. “Grey” shows what a doctor has to give up to become a good doctor. The show shows a complete transformation of a human being into another human being, a doctor who is not allowed to make any mistakes - even if it will harm himself. And it discusses all the problems that one can encounter with patients. How much are you allowed to get involved with them emotionally? How do you deal with them or their relatives? This directly leads to “House” who has already answered all those questions. He is extremely unfriendly to everybody, knows everything best (and actually in the end he proves that he is right) and he is very blunt. Thinking about it he is the kind of doctor one can trust, provided one knows his mindset. Why? Because he is honest. With him the patient always knows where he stands and what his opportunities are. The problem of course is, can everybody take it? And if not who is there to catch one?

After “House” had ended, television networks have looked for new doctors but obviously they were not very fortunate in their search. In November The New York Times raised the question whether medical dramas have come to an end when two new shows had been canceled and other – except for “Grey” - experienced a drop in viewership. Now more new medical dramas have been premiered but were not able to fascinate audiences reported. The author June Thomas writes in her article: “A look at the medical shows that are thriving suggests that viewers want simple, soapy goodness from their TV doctors. Grey’s Anatomy, now in its ninth season, is heavy on interpersonal story lines, as was Private Practice, which recently aired its final episode, but did manage to last six seasons. Royal Pains, USA’s concierge-doctor-in-the-Hamptons hit, is an old-fashioned small-town GP story with added sunshine. ABC’s Dana Delany medical-examiner vehicle, Body of Proof, which returns with some personnel changes on Feb. 19, uses its doctors as crime-solvers. It also dilutes the medical focus by spending lots of time on family drama.”

And with that she probably pinpointed what every TV show is about: family! In fact every TV show that thrives is about family or a kind of extended family, no matter whether it is a medical, legal, cop, fantasy or family drama or comedy. That is because we are most interested in how the relationships within the family or extended family (may it be patchwork families, work groups or other kind of close groups) work.

So if you ever have to come to a hospital remember: although everybody is working hard to ensure that you get the best treatment and care so that you can leave the hospital healed as soon as possible, and although the staff puts your well-being before their own, they are only human beings with families too, who have to deal with everyday problems as well.

Oh, and of course there are list about the best medical dramas ever: this one was put together by the Washington Times in May 2012 and this is a list where you can actually participate with a vote yourself.