Medical dramas, particularly those watched on television, are hugely successful due to the consistent drama and often bizarre scenarios that befall the professionals that work in the hospital. While the events that unfold are obviously fictional, there are still many who derive their medical knowledge from what occurs on these programs.

In this blog, Team Medical Supplies are going to examine how the real-life application of medicine differs from that depicted in these fictional universes.

Misrepresenting demographics

To keep the relatable drama of medical shows consistent, patients are often required to be certain ages to ensure that audiences can readily identify. Unfortunately, this means that patients are disproportionately both young and middle-aged white adults. Their injuries, despite them turning up in an emergency room, are painless and for the most part non-work-related injuries.

This misrepresentation ensures that medical students, whose prior understanding of a hospital environment may have come primarily from these shows, on an environment where their patients are very young (such as babies), elderly, and those with chronic illnesses.

Causes of hospital visits

Not all visits to the hospital room – even the emergency department – occur due to life threatening injury. Fictional televised hospital programs would have you believe the opposite however, with 63.5% of visits being due to injury as compared to only 37% of injuries being the reason for visits in real hospitals. In real hospitals, diseases (such as respiratory illness (3.2% on tv vs 15.1% in real life), gastrointestinal issues and dermatologic issues) were much more common and poorly represented in fictional ER wards.

This large number of injuries in these television shows invariably results in a larger number of deaths, which is obviously tied to the drama of the program. Medical dramas ER, Chicago Hope, and Grey’s Anatomy featured a mortality rate of 17.5% (of typically young white men, as previous evidence showed), while real world hospitals only have a 5% mortality rate. Good news for those that go to hospitals, but the high death rate can certainly scare viewers who might misinterpret the results as being true to life.

High intensity emergency situations

Visit urgency differed between television and reality (P<.001). In particular, the two most common categories in reality were the middle categories “semi-urgent” (41.9%) and “urgent” (22.7%), whereas the two most common categories for television were the extreme categories and “emergent” (28.1%).

Pain was not common on television (absent in 42.1% of cases) compared to the mild presence of pain (35.4%) and moderate presence of pain (29.2%) in real life. Work injuries were also misrepresented on television, where 4.2% of patients suffered from such cases compared to 14.8% in a real hospital environment.

Conversely, 29.7% of cases in the fictional emergency department were classified as non-urgent, which should speak volumes considering the purpose of an emergency department is to address emergency medical situations.

What does this information teach us?

Although the drama of the medical world is obviously embellished in these programs, they still have the power to cause problems. As an example, a study comparing real-world with fictional emergency rooms scenarios came to the conclusion that the differences between televised and real-world emergency departments might influence the types of conditions patients feel are appropriate for emergency department care. For example, a patient might not seek attention at the emergency department of a hospital because their particular condition (i.e. a gastrointestinal or respiratory issue) is not featured on these shows.

In summary, it might be simple for many people to differentiate between real world hospitals and those depicted on television. For those with little experience in hospitals and no comparable experience, make sure to not invest too heavily in the scenarios presented on these shows – they are entertainment, after all.