How TV Dramas Distort Patient Expectations

While spellbinding, medical dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy can create unrealistic expectations for real-life trauma patients entering an actual hospital, according to a recent study.

By Julie Vargo, Editorial Contributor

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 result in unrealistic expectations when real-life trauma patients enter an actual hospital, according to a recent study in BMJ Journal. Researchers analyzed 269 episodes of Grey's Anatomy looking for hospital data 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. Michael Cheatham of Orlando Health Medical Group 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.”

Medical shows draw viewers into an enticing world of hospital heroism, tragedy and romance. It’s easy to forget these dramas are entertainment, compressed and sensationalized for ratings.

“Patients look for parallels in their own hospital experiences,” says Dr. Cheatham, who works at Central Florida’s only Level One Trauma Center. “If something looks familiar — like when I make rounds with residents — they say, ‘Oh, this is just like Grey’s Anatomy.’ ”

More often, though, the Orlando Health surgeon hears, “This is NOT like Grey’s Anatomy!”  “I remind them we are not Hollywood here,” he says. “Most of what we do every day would make horrible television.”

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. TV trauma patients die more often as well. 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. Cheatham. “They just might not go home immediately, like they do on TV. Hollywood compresses a story to fit in a time slot.”

In TV land, 50 percent of severely injured trauma survivors have hospital stays of less than a week compared to 20 percent of real-life patients. When TV patients leave the hospital, only 6 percent transfer to a long-term care facility. In reality, 22 percent of trauma survivors go to a rehab or skilled nursing facility before they head home.

“Most medical dramas don’t show it, but home can be the worst place for patients after a traumatic injury,” says Dr. Cheatham. “When we suggest rehab or a nursing facility, family members often balk. But they also don’t understand the level of 24/7 care required for a few weeks before the patient can get back on their feet. A skilled nursing facility can provide what the family can’t. It’s too bad TV doesn’t show that.”

Starring in Your Own Healthcare Drama

To better align medical expectations, Dr. Cheatham suggests patients play an active role in their own healthcare drama. Don’t smoke and limit alcohol intake, especially before surgery. Eat well and exercise daily. Optimize chronic health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Ask questions or have a patient advocate with you. Follow your doctor’s advice on therapy.

“Be involved,” says Dr. Cheatham. “Patients who are passive actors in their surgery and recovery have a poorer outcome, longer recovery time, more pain and more discomfort.”

Most importantly, remember this is real life, not Hollywood.