David Propst, PA-C, a physician assistant with Wilson Medical Group in Wilson, North Carolina, once had a patient with end-stage renal disease who wondered when Propst could print him a new kidney.
Propst was confused until the patient told him he’d seen it on a television show, except the patient “thought it was for real.” As it turns out, season 10 of the popular medical television drama Grey’s Anatomy featured a storyline in which Ellen Pompeo’s Dr Meredith Grey 3D prints a newborn heart to help with a delicate procedure. Although Dr Grey never transplanted the heart, surgeons do sometimes use 3D printed model organs in planning difficult procedures, and implantable 3D printed organs actually are likely on their way. But they are not quite here yet, contrary to what this patient believed.
Although this instance likely involved the patient misunderstanding what happened on the show, the problem of patients coming into clinics and hospitals with incorrect or outright bizarre ideas about medical conditions and procedures because of what they’ve seen on television is as familiar to medical professionals as physicians hooking up is to Grey’s viewers.
Most research on the topic has focused on CPR rates. In a 2015 study published in Resuscitation, Jaclyn Portanova, PhD, and colleagues examined how CPR survival rates differ between real life and on Grey’s Anatomy and House, another popular medical drama.1 Across 91 episodes in which CPR was performed 46 times in-hospital, nearly always by physicians, 69.6% of patients immediately survived. Most (71.9%) survived until hospital discharge, for an overall survival rate of 50%. But in real life, only half as many (24.8%) adults survived to discharge after receiving in-hospital CPR in 2016, according to the American Heart Association.2 This disparity hasn’t improved much since the topic was first studied more than 2 decades ago by Susan J. Diem, MD, and colleagues.3
“Inaccurate TV portrayal of CPR survival rates may misinform patients and caregivers and influence care decisions made during serious illness and at end of life,” wrote Dr Portanova and colleagues.
But the problem extends well beyond inaccuracies about CPR survival rates. Another study by Rosemarie O. Serrone, MD, and colleagues viewed 269 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and found substantial differences for other outcomes.4 Based on 290 television patients and 4812 patients from the National Trauma Data Base, 22% of television characters died compared with 7% in real life after traumatic injury. Although only a quarter of real-life patients went straight from the emergency department to the operating room, 71% of television characters did — it’s more dramatic, after all.
Yet only 6% of television patients ended up in long-term care compared with 22% of real patients, and half of television patients spent less than a week in the hospital compared with 20% of real patients (P <.0001 for all).4 Television clearly turned up the drama (higher mortality and surgery rates) while glossing over the less glamorous real experiences (longer hospital stays and long-term care), potentially cultivating “false expectations among patients and their families,” the authors wrote.
Indeed, Bruce Lee, MD, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, tweeted in response to a social media query about these television vs real-life misconceptions that “patients frequently underestimate how long it takes to recover from a procedure. On TV, patients often look like they are attending a dinner party after surgery or a procedure.”
The Pervasive Grey’s Anatomy Effect
The scrutiny of Grey’s Anatomy in particular has lent the term “Grey’s Anatomy effect” to the disconnect between real-life and television medicine, but it results from many shows and even films, such as the famous adrenaline-in-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction that patients believe reflects reality, as Claire Zagorski, a paramedic with Austin Harm Reduction Coalition in Texas, tweeted. Communications and sociology professors have explored the phenomenon as well.
Jae Eun Chung, PhD, from Howard University’s School of Communications, examined the underlying mechanisms of this effect and how television influences a broader range of viewer’s health beliefs by surveying 11,555 people.5 “Findings suggest that heavy viewers of medical dramas tend to underestimate the gravity of chronic illnesses such as cancer or cardiovascular disease and undermine the importance of tackling these issues,” Dr Chung wrote. “Heavier viewers of medical dramas, compared to lighter viewers, also tend to take a more fatalistic perspective about cancer.”
This article originally appeared on Medical Bag