Medical TV shows skew how Americans view doctors, health

The portrayals of medical work on television have had an effect on American viewers:

A 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the majority of primetime TV viewers reported learning something new about a disease or other health issue over six months of viewing. About one-third of viewers took some kind of action after learning about a health issue on TV…

As a result, “a fan of medical dramas … can develop a skewed perception of what are more or less prevalent health issues in the real world,” study author Dr. Jae Eun Chung, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Howard University, told me in an email. Heavy viewers of medical dramas in her study were less likely to rate cardiovascular disease and cancer as important societal issues (when they are, in fact, the top two causes of death in the U.S.), and when it came to cancer, they were more fatalistic, “more likely to say that cancer prevention is uncertain and that the disease is fatal.”…

Studies of modern medical shows have found fictional doctors’ professionalism disappointing at best. In an analysis of 50 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and House, researchers found that the characters handled issues involving patient consent well 43 percent of the time. “The remainder [of the depictions] were inadequate,” the study says.

The analysis also found several incidents of doctors endangering patients without being punished, sexual misconduct (of course), and disrespect. The study notes that “88 percent of disrespectful incidents in House involved Dr. House.”

But despite all the inappropriate romances, and Dr. House’s rude mouth, the analysis found that there’s one arena in which TV doctors still shine: caring for patients.

Interesting contrast: TV doctors are caring people but to be that, they cut corners in terms of professionalism as they treat a whole range of odd medical conditions. Additionally, could there be a compelling medical TV show that addresses normal American health problems like obesity and heart disease? (Cancer does get some coverage on these shows.)

All of this makes me wonder whether all professions really would want their activities portrayed on TV. While certain fields may not get much airtime, like sociology, wouldn’t TV likely warp any of these professions in the name of entertainment and stereotypes?

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