Medical dramas are among the most watched shows on television. They feature hospitals or other medical environments as the main setting with health professionals as the main characters. Most shows go beyond events and storylines pertaining to the workplace, and involve aspects of character’s personal lives . Personally, I am an avid fan of Grey’s Anatomy and continue to watch despite the show being on its 17th season. I especially enjoy the overlap between the characters’ jobs and their relationships with each other. I would like to believe that I have gained some medical knowledge from watching Grey’s Anatomy, though I cannot be too sure. Critics of medical dramas often highlight inaccuracies presented, arguing that these shows do not portray the true nature of the medical field. As explained by cultivation theory, which analyzes the effect television has on viewers, many individuals have different outlooks on hospitals and public health.
Cultivation theory proposes that what people view on television will determine their outlook on reality. The theory was developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1975, who sought to demonstrate the interconnectedness of our emotions and opinions with what we see on television. Cultivation theory relies on three basic assumptions:
Television is fundamentally different from other forms of mass media.
Television shapes the way individuals think and relate to each other.
Television’s effects are limited.
Television is different from other media forms in that it provides a physical, often realistic space, where viewers can escape. It is easy to place yourself into the story, and as you follow along you begin to develop strong feelings (both positive and negative) for characters, as if you know them personally. Regarding the second assumption, exposure to a reality other than your own can cause you to view life from a different point of view. The theory also underscores something known as the “cultivation differential”, wherein more frequent viewers are more susceptible to this effect than less frequent viewers .
Medical dramas have the potential to influence viewer perception of healthcare and its practitioners. They are often filled with depictions of bioethical issues and deviations from norms of professionalism. Interactions between coworkers are more familiar than professional given the emphasis on characters’ relationships . Thus, medical shows portray the workplace as more lax than one would expect of a hospital. Furthermore, a study by Pfau et al. found that those who watch medical dramas perceive physicians as more likely to be female and young, and “more imbued with interpersonal communication style, physical attractiveness, and power” . This belief results from Hollywood casting of young, attractive males and females as show leads.
Medical shows sometimes inaccurately depict the prevalence of different health risks. Storylines tend to over represent dramatic/visible disease and under represent more common ones. For instance, medical cases containing injuries, poisonings, mental disorders, alcoholism, illicit drug use, etc. are more likely to be shown than those relating to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and fertility problems. In addition, exposure to cases with uncertainties and possibly fatalistic outcomes combined with little to no information about prevention may worry some viewers. Even worse, the mortality rates of fictional patients is roughly 9x higher than that of patients in real hospitals .
Issues of healthcare accessibility and the political economy are typically not shown within medical TV shows. Unbeknownst to many, public health extends much further from physical hospitals and patient treatment. Questions of who benefits from healthcare and how it is paid for often go unanswered, which limits viewers’ knowledge of health overall . In addition, mistakes in patient care are typically attributed to human error. The Institute of Medicine argues that many medical errors result from institutional flaws, not individual mistakes. In this way, shows fail to demonstrate the problematic nature of our current healthcare system.
Medical dramas are a staple of modern television. These shows have increased the public’s interest in health and provide valuable knowledge to viewers. It is essential we recognize these while these shows can be a vessel to inform viewers about medical information, the primary intention of writers and producers is to entertain.
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