5 Ways TV Medical Dramas are Changing Patient’s Perceptions

Bob Miller

In a quiet emergency room, a team of EMTs bursts through the doors with an unconscious male patient. Immediately, a team of doctors and nurses springs into action. Within 24 hours every imaginable test has been performed on the patient as he lies still in the ICU.

Suddenly, the heart monitor stops beeping rhythmically and generates a flatline.

“He’s coding!” Screams the doctor. A defibrillator appears, and the doctor presses the paddles to the patient’s chest. “CLEAR!” Electricity pulses. Suddenly, the heart monitor begins pulsing.

After a studious examination, the doctor miraculously diagnoses the patient with cerebromeddullospinal disconnection, and over the next 45 minutes, the doctor learns the patient’s entire life story and helps the man reconcile with his estranged wife and children while he is in recovery. Everyone goes on to have a long and happy life.

This type of scene plays out every day on US television medical dramas, and it has greatly distorted Americans’ expectations of physicians and healthcare institutions. So, what are the most common misperceptions that patients gain from watching medical dramas? How can real-life physicians manage the unrealistic Hollywood expectations their patients have?

Patients Expect Greater Provider-Patient Communication

In many TV medical dramas, providers and patients engage in a great deal of communication. This is because the show is meant to be entertaining and this dialog is meant to either add emotional weight or move the story forward. In reality, however, the interaction between provider and patient is much more constrained. When many patients watch these fictitious portrayals, they tend to expect the same unlimited communication with their physician.

Managing This Patient Expectation for the Real-World Physician: If a physician has a patient that wants “more time,” it is best to let them know that while your time is limited this visit if they have further concerns, you are reachable via email, phone or instant messaging. Furthermore, it may be a good idea for a provider to invest in enhanced messaging technology, possibly even secure video chat.

Unrealistic Empathy Expectations

On TV, many physicians show a great deal of empathy toward their patients. Again, this is to draw the viewer in emotionally. When research on provider empathy was conducted in 2013, it was found that 80 percent of patients would prefer an empathic physician to any other doctor. However, while empathy is essential, it is not the only job a physician has.

Managing This Patient Expectation for the Real-World Physician: Empathy is a necessary trait for physicians; however, the degree to which it is displayed on TV by fictional doctors is not based in reality. Physicians recognize that every illness and disease can be a very challenging and painful process for a patient to endure, however, being as empathic as possible within professional limits can help you convince a patient of necessary medical intervention. If a patient appears to need additional help, it would be wise to suggest support groups or therapists. While this can be a challenging subject to discuss with a patient, try stating, “I can only imagine how you are feeling. Many patients find great benefit in talking to someone or a group of people who are going through similar challenges.” This shows a physician is considering the patient’s emotional health as well as their physical health.

The One-Patient Situation: The False Illusion of Time

Many one-hour medical dramas focus on a single case the doctors have before them. While this is necessary from the audience-engagement aspect (What audience could keep track of a round’s full regiment or would even want to?), it creates a perception the patient-provider interaction should be intimately bonded. This, of course, is total fiction since most physician-patient interactions last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.

Managing This Patient Expectation for the Real-World Physician: When dealing with a patient, it is probably a good idea to mention you do have other patients waiting. It is important not to come off as cold, but try saying something as simple as, “Sorry for the wait, but we have had many patients today who have had emergency situations. Thank you for your patience.” This statement is an excellent way to remind patients there are indeed other patients with pressing needs.

Why Is it Taking So Long to Figure Out What is Wrong with Me? Diagnosis Is Really Easy.

When a TV patient has a strange, medical issue, it is usually diagnosed and cured within a single 60-minute episode. These medical dramas characterize the process of making a diagnosis as an easily surmountable challenge with a treatment plan guaranteed to fix the problem almost immediately.

Managing This Patient Expectation for the Real-World Physician: To negate a patient’s expectation of a quick diagnosis, it is necessary to explain how time-consuming the process really is off the bat. It’s best to provide some detail on how long tests and procedures take to come back with results, further illustrating that modern-day lab work isn’t an instant technology. This will help manage expectations and hopefully curtail unrealistic Hollywood standards.

Doctors are Dedicated, and Their Work Does Take a Toll on Their Personal Lives

While many of the perceptions patients gain from TV of the medical field are not based in reality and can create some negative impacts, some impressions are spot-on, such as the toll practicing medicine takes on providers. Many of the TV dramas depict the sacrifices personally, professionally and financially that physicians make to provide care to patients. For example, some shows demonstrate how hard it is for physicians to leave work at work and not take the emotions they feel during the day home with them at night. Also, the delicate and often challenging work-life balance that physicians try to achieve is portrayed with relative accuracy when shows cover childcare, personal relationships, and home issues.

Real-World Solutions For Real-World Physicians

Hollywood is always looking for drama, and medicine is a vibrant source of drama. From miracle recoveries to ultimate loss, writers have a lot of material to choose from – and to exaggerate. Since you can’t beat ‘em, it pays to leverage simple strategies to help patients manage their expectations in the real world.

If you are a physician committed to patient care looking for new career opportunities, the recruiters at MedSource Consultants want to hear from you. At MedSource Consultants, we place physicians in positions that allow them to practice medicine the way they want to. Contact our top healthcare recruiters today to learn more!