The medical profession on TV doesn’t look much like it does in real life. There’s much more drama between hospital staff, everyone looks like they spent two hours with a hair and makeup team before they showed up to work (because they did), and the cases are much more exciting. TV medical dramas might be fun to watch, but often they bear little resemblance to what goes on in an actual hospital. Here are a few of the most common and most egregious medical and practical inaccuracies you’ll see.
Everyone has lots of time to socialize. Even though they’re set in hospitals, the drama in these shows tends to revolve around the relationships between the doctors, nurses, and other medical staff. Somehow, all these people seem to have lots of time to socialize, have steamy affairs, backstab each other, and get into interpersonal dramas.
In reality, the drama at any hospital revolves around the patients. Nurses are notoriously overworked, and doctors are kept on their feet as well—nobody gets the time they’d like to spend on individual patients, let alone each other.
Everyone who gets CPR survives just fine. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, approximately 75% of patients who receive CPR after cardiac arrest not only survive—but recover immediately and are in perfect health. That’s in on-screen depictions, of course. Real life isn’t so rosy.
In reality, your chances of living through cardiac arrest vary widely based on a range of factors, including whether you had your cardiac arrest in a hospital or not. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 2% of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of the hospital fully recovery. The American Heart Association’s study has more optimistic figures, at 8%. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that 15% of people who get CPR in the hospital recover.
Those figures vary, but they’re uniformly low. As important as CPR is to know as a lifesaving skill, it’s not a perfect tool. It’s more of a last resort.
Everything is all high-drama, all the time. While it’s true that high-stakes, high-drama cases do occur—possibly more so in emergency room wards that serve communities with higher rates of violence—most hospitals, and most emergency rooms, are a lot more routine than what you see on television most of the time.
Everyone’s overworked and running on little sleep, and small life-or-death dramas may be going on every day—but it’s not as exciting as what you see on TV.
When a patient has flatlined, just use a defibrillator. It happens so often it’s almost a cliché of medical dramas—a patient’s heart-rate monitor goes flat, everyone in the room freaks out, and then some nurse or doctor comes in with an automatic defibrillator, shouts “CLEAR,” and delivers a massive surge of electrical energy to the patient’s chest. The patient pops up, eyes wide, looking pretty surprised but none the worse for wear. End scene.
In actuality, when that flat line appears on a heart rate monitor, it means the heart is not contracting—or beating—at all. A defibrillator’s purpose is to deliver a shock to the heart to reset its rhythm—to fix an irregular heartbeat. But a patient with no heartbeat at all is not going to benefit much from a big electrical shock.
Rubbing the paddles together somehow does something. Why do medical professionals rub the paddles of a defibrillator together before they use them on a patient? Maybe they’re trying to build up static electricity (even though the shock delivered by a defibrillator is not generated by static). We’re not sure, but that happens all the time in medical dramas. In reality, nobody does that. You’d probably break the machine if you tried.
Defibrillator pads are always in the wrong place. The most common placement of defibrillator pads in the movies and on television—based on our very unscientific survey of shows we’ve seen that time—is two pads parallel on the patient’s chest. It might look dramatic, but that’s not how it’s done in real life. In reality, one pad goes on the right-hand center of the patient’s chest, just above the nipple. The other is placed on the left of the rib cage, just below the other nipple.
For some reason, everyone works during the day. Some shows are more realistic about this than others, but depending on the show you watch, most people would get a very inaccurate picture of what medical professionals’ schedules are like from watching medical dramas and movies. Not everyone works during the day. There is a lot of shift work that takes place at night, early in the morning, and at other irregular hours.
Doctors can do every job in the hospital. It’s not unusual to see doctors using the MRI scanner, performing a range of surgeries, doing blood and tissue analysis, and taking on all the other jobs that it takes a range of medical professionals to handle in real life—like phlebotomists, nurses, radiologists, surgeons, and lab technicians, to start. Every one of these specialties takes years of training and education—and there just isn’t time in one person’s life to take on all of these careers.
Organ donation gets a nasty reputation. It’s not unusual for plots on medical dramas involving organ donation to present the practice in a negative light—with plot points revolving around chief surgeons running black market organ harvesting rings or patients being allowed to die early so doctors can “harvest” their organs to use on other patients. In reality, hospitals have procedures in place to protect against conflicts of interest in donating organs, and these plot points have been shown in studies to have an effect on public perception of organ donation. This could conceivably have a real world effect on people’s decision to donate—and directly affect the lives of patients who need donated organs.
Myths and misconceptions on television about medical practice aren’t all harmless. While some are just amusing and frustrating to medical professionals and those close to the industry who recognize them, others can have a real effect on public perception in a way that’s potentially harmful. Still, if you’re a fan of a medical TV show, sometimes the best thing to do is just suspend disbelief and remind yourself it’s supposed to entertain—not inform.