Alongside our obsession with rogue detectives and crime scene investigators, we can’t seem to get enough of medical shows. The longest running soap in the US is General Hospital, currently in its 51st year, and when one major medical show ends, another begins. When ER finally left our screens, we had Gray’s Anatomy to fill in our desire to see doctors and nurses saving lives and falling in love.
The popularity of medical dramas means we’ve had all sorts of characters strutting through the ER doors. We’ve had crime solving doctors and even teenage genius doctors.
But just how realistic are these shows? Are they giving us a false representation of what happens in the hospital? The answer might surprise you as we take a look at four famous (and sometimes controversial) medical shows and see how closely they follow day to day life at the hospital.
Premiering in 2009, Nurse Jackie instantly caused waves amongst the nursing profession, with the New York State Nurses Association demanding a disclaimer at the start of the show to denote that Jackie is pure fiction. Following a tough NY nurse handling one of the busiest A&Es in the world, the show’s twist was that the dedicated and hard working protagonist was addicted to painkillers, acquired through her affair with the hospital’s pharmacist. Jackie’s aversion to following the rules also caused upset. In the pilot episode alone the naughty nurse makes some very dodgy moral decisions that would lead to any nurse having their license removed, including forging an organ donation card, stealing money from a rude patient and even flushing body parts down the toilet. The pain killer addiction element of the show has drawn criticism and praise. Jackie initially takes them for chronic back pain, which highlighted a serious issue for nurses everywhere, but her addiction to Percocet, a drug that causes liver damage, seemed unrealistic considering Jackie would presumably know how dangerous the drug was in large quantities.
Running from 1994 to 2009, ER is arguably the most successful medical drama of all time. Thanks to its high level medical consultants, the show was always very accurate with its lingo and props. But the main criticism of ER is… where are the nurses? The drama revolved around the lives of doctors, but the nursing contingent of County General was mysteriously missing when it should have been ever-present. There were nurse characters on the show, but their involvement in cases was minimal, with nurses relegated to slinging bedpans and taking temperatures, a very inaccurate depiction of modern nursing, and a shame considering how the show ticked so many boxes when it came to depicting the life of a doctor.
It might be punctuated with jokes and fantasy sequences, but the popular medical sitcom is surprisingly one of the most realistic shows out there. Inspired by the main writers’ experiences of living with a med student, nearly every story line is based on a real life incident, with a little creative licence taken to provide comedy and drama. Doctors have also praised Scrubs for its realistic emotional content. JD’s self reflective (and at times self doubting) monologue struck a chord with medical professionals, including themes such as the pull of competing and collaborating with other doctors, panic over diagnosis and the pull of going private. The show was also filmed in a real hospital; the abandoned North Hollywood Medical Center played the role of Sacred Heart rather than sets, adding a layer of surprising realism.
House may not have had the greatest bedside manner, but the renegade medical genius was great at solving more unusual medical symptoms. Doctor and avid house fan Scott Morrison decided to review every single episode based on its medical realism on his blog, and considering the outlandish diseases on the show which only House can solve, the C average for the series is pretty impressive. Only a handful of episodes in the 177 episode run got the perfect ‘A’ grade from Morrison, but the best grade overall went to an episode where a patient was being secretly poisoned by his wife (a common occurrence?). The worst grade went to an episode that made up symptoms and even an entire drug for the sake of drama.
Allowing for a little creative licence, some famous medical dramas and comedies have been praised for their surprising medical accuracy. The genre is now making a leap into reality TV, with MTV hoping the drama that makes medical shows so popular will make their new real-life show Nurse Nation currently in the middle of its first season.