5 Real Things Doctor Shows Taught Us About Medicine


What can you possibly learn in medical school that you can’t during a weekend-long marathon of House? We’ve only experienced the latter, so we can’t say for sure — but the answer seems to be “a lot,” considering that our doctors keep disagreeing with our self-diagnoses. Hospital shows receive endless scorn for their medical inaccuracies, and the customary rebuttal is the fact that they’re nothing more than entertainment. But we can’t deny that these series have taught us some things about the field, so we’ve rounded up some of their profound, didactic, med-school-worthy, and factually correct lessons.

Scrubs: Doctors really can be dopey and insecure

JD’s bizarre world of medicine isn’t as bizarre as it may seem, according to most doctors, who say that when it comes to hospital dynamics, relationships, and internal conflict, Scrubs is one of the most realistic shows out there. The character is based on Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence’s college buddy Jonathan Doris — a bit of information that may not exactly inspire confidence from his patients — and many of the show’s plot points derive from Doris’s true stories. While Scrubs won’t teach you how to perform surgery, it is said to capture many of the subtler elements of the medical industry — doctors’ simultaneous annoyance with and reliance on nurses, rivalry between medical residents in different fields, delicate inter-staff relationships, and what goes on in the head of a doctor whose patient just died.

House, M.D.: It’s probably not lupus

In its seven seasons, the show has made it pretty clear that your diagnosis probably isn’t going to be lupus, so if you suffer from Münchausen syndrome, don’t make that your go-to illness.

But that’s not the only tidbit of medical knowledge House, M.D. offers its fans; in addition to thoroughly confusing us with indecipherable babble and an absurd differential diagnosis procedure, it exposes us to an impressive medical vocabulary and reminds us that it is technically possible for highly unlikely phenomena to occur. Devoted viewers walk away knowing things like what Munchausen syndrome, an LP (Lumbar Puncture), and amyloidosis are, and that it’s technically still possible to contract the bubonic plague — and even lupus!

Trauma: Life in the ER: Doctors take huge personal risks

Among the few examples of cinéma vérité about the medical profession — one that had the luck to precede stringent laws about filming patient care — TLC’s Trauma: Life in the ER, which aired from 1997 to 2002, didn’t spare much gore or sugarcoat the tragedies that transpire in the emergency room. But the fact it treated with perhaps the most candor — one that’s overlooked in many medical dramas — is the very real risk that doctors and nurses expose themselves to while caring for patients with contagious diseases.

In more than one episode, medical personnel are accidentally stuck with patient needles and exposed to sexually transmitted infections like HIV and hepatitis C. The show documents the aftermath of the needle prick for two such victims, a surgical resident and an intern, whose next few months consist of anti-viral medication and nervous speculation about whether they’ve contracted the deadly diseases.

Grey’s Anatomy: If you’re HIV positive, you probably won’t pass the disease on to your baby

In 2008, the Kaiser Family Foundation had a hunch that television viewers put a whole lot of trust in doctor shows, so it teamed up with Grey’s Anatomy to test its theory. The show planted a medical statistic into the episode titled “Piece of My Heart,” in which a pregnant couple tells Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) that they want to abort their baby because its mother-to-be is HIV positive.

Izzie tries to convince her patients to reconsider, shoving the statistic down viewers’ throats:

“I wasn’t saying there’s some chance your baby might not be sick,” she says. “I’m saying there is a 98 percent chance your baby will be born perfectly healthy. Ninety-eight percent!’

“A 98 percent chance?” the mother repeats.

“A 98 percent chance.”

The sample of viewers studied took a pre-air, post-air, and six-weeks-post-air survey that revealed that Grey’s Anatomy audiences generally remember and trust stuff they watch on Grey’s Anatomy; 15 percent of the subjects already knew about the stat before watching Grey’s that night, 61 percent remembered it the week the episode aired, and 45 percent could recall it six weeks later. Not only does Grey’s teach you that you can still have a healthy baby if you have HIV, but it also ensures that you might well retain that information for the future.

ER: You should know the facts about HPV

Just like it did with Grey’s Anatomy, the Kaiser Family Foundation worked with ER to splice health information into the show’s plot and test viewers on how well they listened.

The show’s instructional content included lessons on emergency contraception, rapid HIV testing, and a variety of sexual health topics, but particularly prescient was its focus on the human papillomavirus (HPV) in a February 2000 episode, six years before the FDA approved the first preventive vaccine for the disease. Employing the same survey method it used on Grey’s audiences, the foundation polled a sample of regular viewers just before, just after, and six weeks after the episode’s air date and found that the number of viewers who said they’d heard of HPV went from 24 percent to 47 percent to 38 percent, and the number of viewers who could actually define the STI went from nine percent to 28 percent to 16 percent.

We, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, aren’t the only ones who’ve taken an interest in the intermittent medical accuracy of the classic television series, though. In The Medicine of ER: An Insider’s Guide to the Medical Science Behind America’s #1 TV Drama, physician and writer Alan Duncan Ross delves into the show’s realistic (and less-so) portrayals of ER life.