Fiction vs. Reality: The Glamour vs. the Grime of Medical Professionals

January 30, 2013

With the success of TV hospital shows such as ER, Grey's Anatomy, House, and Private Practice, medical occupations are becoming ever more popular. Although most fictional dramas aim for authenticity in depicting particular occupations, fiction and reality inevitably clash.

The fictional hospital environment is often very different from reality. Even though most situations in medical dramas seem quite realistic – and usually are, since producers have medical and technical advisors who help to develop plots – the small-screen depiction is usually more sanitized and romantic.

Common sense tells us that an attractive, 30-something, world-renowned neurosurgeon, who enjoys a zero mortality rate among his patients, is extremely unlikely. Yet viewers tend to buy into such fictional stereotypes. To debunk certain medical myths featured in popular TV series, let's compare the fictional medical world to that of reality.

Surgeons: Fiction vs. Reality

Medical dramas usually depict a surgeon's lot as a glamorous one. On the small screen, surgeons don charming smiles, fit perfectly into their scrubs and look well-rested and serene.

health care surgery

The reality, however, is altogether less exciting and idyllic. Surgery is the most demanding, stressful, and yet humble, discipline, within the medical profession. How could it be otherwise when surgeons hold patients' lives in their hands?

Surgeons spend long hours on their feet, are on call 24/7, and have residencies that last many years. Many find that their personal lives suffer under the strain. Dr. Brian Bethea, cardiothoracic surgery fellow at Johns Hopkins, defined the problem well for the documentary series Hopkins:

"There is a joke among the wives of surgical residents – they are referred to as widows because they are married to a physician."

Surgeons are usually portrayed as heroes – and so they are – but TV dramas peddle the myth that surgeons perform complex procedures single-handed. Real-life surgeons rely not just on their skills and expertise but also on other professionals in the operating room – the anesthesiologist, nurses and surgical technicians. They are all an essential part of the team, working together towards the best possible outcome for patients.

Nurses: Fiction vs. Reality

nursesFictionalized nurses perform many similar tasks to their real-life counterparts. Nevertheless, even the best TV drama seldom does justice to their role. In reality, nurses are always busily monitoring a patient's vital signs and overall condition.

In contrast to what is shown on television, nurses in a real hospital or emergency room have a pivotal role. They are usually on the front line, performing many procedures in the event of an emergency. And because physicians spend comparatively short periods with the patient, it is nurses who deliver the care.

EMTs: Fiction vs. Reality

Emergency medical techniciansEmergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics feature on TV less frequently and are portrayed even more unrealistically. Granted, dramas depict EMTs and paramedics providing emergency treatment to patients. Yet such shows tend to dwell on the "miraculous" recovery patients enjoy at the hands of EMTs and paramedics who administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). On TV, almost all patients who receive CPR recover completely. In reality, it is less than 50%.

In recent years, enrollments for EMT and paramedic programs have significantly increased. The training includes up to two years of instruction and requires formal certification. However, upon completion of such training, the unrealistic fictional portrayals quickly hit home to those whose career choice was even partially influenced by prime-time television. The realities of the occupation include physical and emotional challenges and irregular working hours, both of which are a major source of stress in real life.