Grey’s Anatomy premiered in 2005, becoming one of the most loved and watched dramas in history. Grey’s Anatomy became a popular hit, a cultural phenomenon. But its effects, researchers found, are more intricate than you’d think — the series is distorting the reality of trauma care.

Medical dramas have been a favorite of viewers for many years, with a lot of emphasis being placed on authenticity. However, when you’re trying to keep viewers engaged, authenticity is often sacrificed for the sake of a juicy storyline. Researchers wanted to see whether or not a popular series can affect how people see real-life medical teams, so they compared the portrayal of trauma sustained by 290 fictional patients in the first 12 seasons of Gray’s Anatomy with real-life injuries sustained by 4812 patients in the 2012 National Trauma Databank.

First off, here’s the good news. In real life, survival ratings are much higher than on Grey’s Anatomy — three times higher, actually. The fatality rate in the television series was 22%, whereas in real life, it was 7%. Furthermore, while the vast majority of the TV patients (71%) went straight from emergency care to the operating theatre, only one in four (25%) of the databank patients did so. The TV series also overemphasized the prevalence of rare diseases and conditions.

Researchers say these expectations are skewing our expectations of real doctors.

“Although realism is an integral element to the success of a television drama set in a contemporary workplace, be it a hospital or police department, the requirements for dramatic effect demand a focus on the exceptional rather than the mundane,” the authors write.

“Hence, American television medical dramas tend to rely on storylines that feature rare diseases, odd presentations of common diseases, fantastic and/or quirky injuries, and mass casualty events, all framed within a ‘realistic’ representation of a typical US hospital.”

This divergence is bound to happen, scientists say, considering the balancing act between reality and drama that all series incorporate, but it’s concerning that something as trivial as a TV series can have an important impact on patient expectations and satisfaction.

The study successfully showed that there’s a big difference between what happens in a real ER, and a TV series ER. However, the exact impact of this difference has not been determined and remains to be assessed in future studies.

“Patient’s expectations after injury in general remain relatively unclear, and exploration of this area may offer insight that could lead to both improved patient satisfaction and engagement in the recovery process,” the authors conclude.

Journal Reference: Serrone et al. “Grey’s Anatomy effect: television portrayal of patients with trauma may cultivate unrealistic patient and family expectations after injury”, Trauma Surgery & Acute Care OpenDOI: 10.1136/tsaco-2017-000137

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