Medical Drama Shows - Good or Bad Influence on Everyday Practice?


Published: 21 January 2018

ER… M*A*S*H… Scrubs… House… Grey’s Anatomy… 

These are just some of the most successful medical dramas to grace our televisions. Not to mention, the myriad of long-running medical emergency ‘reality’ shows being made by every network.

Many of us enjoy programs for the harmless and light entertainment that these programs can offer. However, have you ever stopped to consider what we can learn from watching these shows? Or, could they be doing more harm than good?

In this article, we consider several ways medical drama television shows can influence our everyday practice – some for better, and some for worse.

Students and Education

Hoffman et al.’s systematic review indicates that medical television shows are especially popular amongst healthcare students (2017).

One study explores the usefulness and popularity of utilising medical TV drama shows for educational purposes.

The research article by Hirt et al. (2012) found that ER and Scrubs were more appropriate for the topic of ‘teaching and learning’ than House or Grey’s Anatomy. Yet, House and Grey’s Anatomy may be preferable to educate students about ‘ethics or teamwork’. Weaver, Wilson and Langendyk (2014) also highlighted that medical TV shows may be useful in helping medical students to recognise modern issues regarding other similar, professional topics.

It was also found that students were able to remember health topics from episodes of shows and that students were very satisfied with, and had a better understanding of health information from, the use of medical TV show clips as learning tools (Hoffman et al. 2017).

Williams et al. (2015) suggest that the application of medical dramas may be more enjoyable and engaging for students as opposed to relying on clinical data or other formal education approaches.

Education Tools

Williams, Evans and Alshareef express that medical drama TV shows can be useful for medical education, helping the viewed to consider:

  • Signs and symptoms
  • How health conditions affect individuals and their relatives
  • Issues for the health system
  • Treatments
  • Alternative treatments
  • Professional relationships (e.g. client-doctor)
  • Family interactions and issues
  • Legal issues
  • Occupational issues
  • Caring for relatives
  • Impacts of stereotypes
  • Death and dying
  • Childbirth
  • Chronic illness
  • Equality
  • Consent
  • Ethics
  • Confidentiality


Entertainment v Reality Concerns

However, Williams et al. (2015) raise the following concerns about medical TV shows:

  • They often stray from the norm
  • They may not reflect reality
  • Behaviours are exaggerated
  • There are many distractions from the intended learning topic (e.g. social background themes)

(Williams et al. 2015)

Chung (2014) found that ‘heavy viewers of medical dramas tend to underestimate the gravity of chronic illnesses’. Similarly, the heavier viewers had a more ‘fatalistic’ view of cancer in comparison to lighter viewers.

Concerns are not limited to medicine and nursing. Heye et al. (2016) express that TV dramas ‘may create false expectations towards radiological examinations and potential safety hazards.’

This leads to questions surrounding whether health professionals and students that regularly view medical dramas may also develop unrealistic expectations for the roles and responsibilities of team members.

Diversity and Representation

A different and interesting finding from Jain and Slater (2013) is that ‘women are underrepresented as physicians on reality shows, though they are no longer underrepresented as physicians on dramas.’ Similarly, Jain and Slater (2013) revealed that women are less represented than men as physicians participating in interactions with clients in the medical dramas.

There is also a lack of representation of ‘Asian and international medical graduates’ (Jain & Slater 2013). These findings generate concern regarding the expectations that viewers of medical shows may have when engaging in actual healthcare.

‘Parasocial Interaction’ and Health Professionals

When considering that viewers’ perceptions of health conditions may be influenced by medical dramas, it is wondered whether viewers’ perceptions of health professionals may also be affected.

Back in 1956, Horton and Wohl (Oxford Reference 2018) described a phenomenon (‘parasocial interaction’) in which viewers formed a psychological relationship with performers.

It is claimed that frequent viewers become so familiar with TV personalities that they perceive them as being like a friend (Oxford Reference 2018). This phenomenon is examined by Fadenbrecht (2015), of whom describes ‘The findings of this study suggest that the higher the selective para-social connection with television characters, generally speaking, the higher the levels of expectations of empathic physician communication will exist.’

Nurses and Perceptions

From this concern, an understanding can develop for one of the reasons that student nurses were found in Weaver et al.’s study to worry that TV shows have a negative impact on the nursing image.

Whilst it was believed that there may be some educational or recruitment opportunities offered from medical TV shows, Weaver et al. concluded that nurses, educators and students should be ‘critically engaged with the image of their profession in society’ (2013).

Likewise, one may ponder whether medical dramas may impact on the self-image or expectations of viewers that are health workers or students. It appears that there would be a potential for positive and negative impacts of such upon the viewer’s sense of identity, self-esteem, and future career outlook.

It would be interesting to see further research into the influence of medical dramas upon viewers’ (that are health professionals or students) personal and professional relationships and boundaries.

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