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Do Medical Dramas Skew Patients’ Health Care Expectations?

September 09, 2009 03:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The aggressive—and extremely expensive—approach to health care portrayed in medical dramas on TV is a far cry from what doctors recommend in real life.

Every Patient Wants a Dr. House

Popular medical TV dramas such as “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have influenced people’s perceptions of real health care, Christopher Weaver reports for Kaiser Health News. These shows “encourage patients to expect the latest devices, drugs and other treatments to yield miraculous results,” while downplaying “their high costs and possible side effects,” Weaver writes.

The portrayal of medicine on TV tends to be sensationalistic, dealing with hopeless cases and coming up with phenomenal cures that raise patients’ hopes in real life. As Sara Hussein reports for AFP, “[T]hese medi-dramas are feeding patients unrealistic expectations,” leading them to believe that “rafts of examinations and aggressive interventions are the norm.” Medical dramas seldom refer to the possibility that aggressive treatments might not be effective, and pay little attention to the negative side effects that may accompany such treatments.

“[T]he amount of attention to what can be done in health care has persuaded everyone, including doctors, that more is better,” Steven Davidson, an emergency-room doctor at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, told Weaver. Real-life medicine, however, comes with a very high price tag that TV medicine doesn’t portray: as estimated by New Choice Health and MTBC, companies dedicated to comparing hospital charges and physician billing, a test sequence typically shown during a “House” episode “probably would tally charges of more than $9,200,” Weaver reports.

Joe Turow, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Kaiser Health News that "[t]here's a real disjuncture between the model policymakers are trying to push compared to TV.” Instead of hiking up medical costs with a wide variety of random tests that may not prove to be effective, policymakers advise using medical resources more prudently in order to make them more affordable, Kaiser Health News reports. “Television consistently has portrayed medicine as an unlimited resource,” Turow said.

Background: The double role of medi-dramas

The popularity of medical dramas stems from a combination of compelling drama and gripping, often unrealistic storylines. “The shows do tend to be very activist, very interventionist, very aggressive with their care … because action is more interesting,” medical journalist Andrew Holtz told AFP. Most medical shows also portray an imminent death that many times, if not always, is averted in the end. “People have the belief that if you search hard enough, if you spend enough money, if you find the right doctor, you can get that rescue, that breakthrough, and those things just don't really happen in the real world,” Holtz concluded.

According to the study “Television as a Health Educator: A Case Study of Grey’s Anatomy,” conducted by Victoria Rideout, a Kaiser Family Foundation researcher, medical dramas such as “Grey’s Anatomy” can also serve to correctly educate viewers about significant health issues while they provide entertainment.

As Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM) explains, the study looked at an episode of the show that presented a message about the proper treatment of HIV. Surveying viewers before and after watching the show, the study concluded that “the audience’s awareness of this information increased by 46 percentage points (from 15% to 61%), a four-fold increase among all viewers.” Furthermore, the study also found that “[j]ust under half (45%) of all regular viewers say they have learned something new about a health issue from the show.”

“For better or worse, viewers do absorb the health information they see on TV, so it’s important for these shows to get it right,” Rideout told GFEM. “This study shows the enormous potential for entertainment television to serve as a health educator.”

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