The inaccuracies in medical shows make for good TV, but its ability to misinform is a frustrating cost

Photo courtesy of ABC

Written by: Ashley Baryer, SFU Student

We live in the day and age of hypochondriacs, WebMD self-educated “doctors,” and self-diagnosis. It is no surprise that medicine-based television has skyrocketed in popularity; Grey’s Anatomy enters its fifteenth season at the end of this month. Medical shows have only expanded in volume, from TLC reality show Dr. Pimple Popper to the more fictitious and comedic Scrubs.

Aside from shock value, a lot of these shows share a general dramatization of every possible event. The makers of shows like Grey’s Anatomy defend their accuracy by stating thatn scripts are written with physician help to assure authenticity. While there’s some authenticity in the practice of certain procedures, and surgeries, the overall show is riddled with inaccuracies.

Television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Resident, and Scrubs feed on drama and comedy. These portrayals are what remove the reality from the show. Instead of following realistic hospital procedure and structure, residents and interns ignore the chain of command. Instead, hospitals and medical offices are presented as if personal relationships run the hierarchy — something that would never occur in a real hospital.

Despite the chaotic personal lives of on-screen doctors, the worst inaccuracies of the show come from diagnosis. Here is where the real problems begin. Given that we live in a society with information so readily available at our fingertips, a deep fear of the unknown and a desire to constantly solve problems alone, the inaccuracy of diagnosing patients on television can cause a lot of misinterpretations.

It’s certainly bizarre to think of medical shows as a source of medical knowledge. But medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy are a lot of people’s first exposure to medical possibilities. For example, if you feel unwell, you don’t immediately see a doctor, you typically wait a day to see if it clears up. If you can’t afford the time to see one, then you’re left to your own devices to stew in the information you have available to you.

Shows like Grey’s Anatomy feed on hypochondriacs and those who seek to self-diagnose by finding life-threatening medical mysteries in everyday symptoms. A headache becomes a brain tumor with no other signifiers but mood swings; suddenly being moody with headaches is warning of an inoperable tumor. The dramatization of symptoms encourages viewers to dramatize their own symptoms or in the case of self-diagnosing — leads viewers to mismatch their symptoms with the patients in the show.

Does this make medical comedies and dramas horrible? Certainly not. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy need certain inaccuracies to foster drama for entertainment value, adding to the tension and fun. Without these discrepancies, shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Resident, and Scrubs would not have gained popularity. But these flaws are significant, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted just how problematic their presentation of science can be. People are free to enjoy these shows, but ultimately need to think of them as the fantasy that they are.