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5 Popular Medical Shows Ranked by Accuracy

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“It must be true…I saw it on TV,” many non-medical professionals exclaim after catching some insights on a procedure or disease during a modern medical drama episode.

It’s a refrain heard over and over again. While many entertaining depictions of life from the ER to the OR employ consultants in the medical industry, no rule says that their advice has to be obeyed in the show.

Here are TV’s most popular medical shows ranked from the least to the most accurate at portraying real-life hospital situations.

5 Medical Shows Ranked Least to Most Accurate

#5. Grey’s Anatomy

Starting us off, TV’s most popular medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, is heralded by doctors as the least accurate in portraying life working at a hospital. For example, in one of the episodes, a doctor asks a patient for the organs of their deceased spouse. In reality, state legislation and strict organ donation protocol prevent doctors from ever approaching patients directly.

“To me, Grey’s Anatomy is a drama show set in a hospital,” said Soliant RN representative Karen Stockdale. “Grey’s Anatomy is unrealistic because the doctors seem to do everything with very little assistance. In reality, most doctors haven’t had the practice and skill to start an IV, and they rarely administer any medications of any type. That stays in the nursing realm.”

#4. House M.D.

House M.D. has some well-researched plots, but it also has some pretty far-fetched situations you wouldn’t encounter outside the world of fiction. One significant inaccuracy occurs during episode 6 of season 6 when a “truth serum” is given in addition to an MRI to see if a patient is telling the truth.

#3. ER

Despite having real doctors help create ideas for the show, the team at County General lands just in the middle of our accuracy list. One of the show’s most significant flaws was the constant use of CPR. Not only was it often done incorrectly, but it was also portrayed as being highly effective, which is unfortunately not the case in real-life scenarios.

“In real life, we don’t defibrillate every time in a code—only when it is indicated, and definitely not asystole (flatline). Also, when it does happen, paddles are rarely used anymore,” said Stockdale. “In the real world, many people are doing many things at a time—throwing supplies around, drawing blood, getting IVs going, all while CPR is in progress.”

#2. St. Elsewhere

It was certainly easier to remain true to the real-life profession when TV reigned as the supreme medium and ratings were a cakewalk. St. Elsewhere, a TV drama series that ran from 1982-1988, was created with a homage to real medical doctors, nurses, and hospitals—that’s tough to equal in any decade.

A forerunner for dramatic medical shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, St. Elsewhere prided itself on its realism, instead leaning on the personal dramas of the characters to drive the show rather than outlandish medical scenarios. Still, any show that runs for six seasons is bound to have a few unrealistic episodes.

#1. Scrubs

Surprisingly, this bumbling live-action show was heralded by doctors and med students as the most true-to-life medical TV series in terms of both technical accuracy and capturing the culture of doctors and interns. That just goes to show that drama doesn’t necessarily equate to accuracy!

“The dialogue is what makes [Scrubs] funny and addictive, but medical professionals also appreciate the fact that the roles in the show are correct—nurses do ‘nurse work’ and doctors do ‘doctor work’ without much crossover,” said Stockdale. “The tone of the show and sense of humor is somewhat believable—medical people have plenty of snark! It’s often our way of coping with long hours, stressful work, and heartbreaking situations.”

Common Medical Myths in TV Shows

TV myth: Doctors operating outside their specialty

The reality: While shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy depict surgeons performing every procedure in the hospital, this just isn’t accurate in the industry. The sheer variety of surgeries in different specialties that doctors perform on these shows is something you’ll only see on TV.

TV myth: Doctors doing everything at every step of inpatient care

The reality: Many patients who are fans of these shows are amazed to see that the nurses in real hospitals seem to do everything. In real life, patients are seen by and are helped by nurses more often than doctors. This is because—unlike on TV—doctors don’t do most of the stuff that looks cool on TV.

TV myth: Patients revived just in time for the commercial break

The reality: Though lots of medical dramas let the credits roll right after a dramatic death scored with a melancholy top 40 ballad, the same shows also rely on just-in-time resuscitations before or after commercial breaks. In reality, flat lines can’t be solved with paddles, CPR is rarely successful, and hospital resuscitations are successful only 5-10% of the time in ideal circumstances.

“Medical people also realize that most of the time when a patient is sick enough to code, the outcome is not good,” said Stockdale. “We are thrilled when a patient gets to walk out of the hospital after this scenario, [but the] reality is that they often don’t make it through the code, or they pass away a few days later.”

TV myth: Every resident leaving the hospital at the same time (often to have drinks)

The reality: Though this was a favorite of ER and Grey’s Anatomy, it’s just mathematically impossible with real-life scheduling. Also, surgeons, like many of us, understand that they won’t wake up feeling 100% after going out for weeknight drinks, so it’s just inaccurate. While these scenes add to character development, we can all agree that we’d prefer our surgeries done by someone who isn’t hungover!

TV myth: Doctors dating colleagues on-the-job

The reality: Ahem—you know which show we’re talking about here. Beyond almost every doctor laughingly wondering which hospital in America they could work at that would allow them enough time to form a romantic relationship with a colleague, such broom closet rendezvous’ would be a serious cause for dismissal at pretty much any real-life facility.

Medical Accuracy Fails on TV

In one Grey’s Anatomy episode, two characters perform an illegal autopsy against a family’s wishes. On the show, the characters are forgiven (instead of arrested) because they discover the patient had a rare genetic disease.

In real-life, institutional checks are in place to ensure that clinical research is ethical. Unfortunately, though, many viewers who become patients may still avoid doctors because they are now afraid of being experimented on after—in their minds—TV fiction has confirmed their worst fears.

Another laughable fail includes an episode from Medical Investigation on NBC, where actors did out-in-the-field epidemic detective work as the CDC, but they were identified as employees of the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency more focused on lab-based science. Also, the heroes wore leather jackets while checking for a deadly pathogen. While a good outfit, the lack of accuracy is comical.

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Contributor Tera Rowland

Tera Rowland is the vice president of Soliant and has worked in the healthcare staffing industry for almost 20 years in public relations, social media, marketing and operations. In addition to Soliant, Tera worked at the Mayo Clinic as an internal communication manager and for the Children’s Miracle Network. She is a member of the American Marketing Association and the American Staffing Association. Also, Tera has served on the board of directors for the Jacksonville Women’s Leadership Forum as part of the communication committee. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Relations as well as a Master of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of North Florida and has been published in the Huffington Post, Healthcare Finance News, Healthcare Traveler Magazine, and Scrubs Magazine. Make sure to read the rest of Tera's blogs!