The Perils of Medical Melodramas


Last season’s Grey’s Anatomy finale featured a dramatic plane crash that killed two doctors. One survivor had to have her leg amputated, while another went through multiple surgeries to regain function in his hand. Similar disasters abound on shows like House and ER, and viewers eat up the drama with a spoon. Is this all just mindless entertainment, or does it really shape the way we view doctors?

One medical communications expert says the melodrama could be harmful. In his lecture last night at UT’s Belo Center for New Media, UPenn professor Joseph Turow said that unrealistic storytelling—shows that portray doctors as erratic, neurotic, and overly focused on their love lives—is making people paranoid about the medical industry. Turow said writers and producers are trying to give audiences what they think they want to see, but this strategy is sparking negative sentiments.

“The challenge now is to convince storytellers that depicting healthcare teams in realistic, positive ways is cool and will work with audiences,” he said.

Turow began to compile research in the 1980s through interviews with about 120 people. He spoke with actors, directors, producers, and others involved in crafting stories about the medical system. His presentation included clips from Grey’s Anatomy and House to illustrate his argument that current medical TV programs have become all about “neurotically competing doctors trying their best to fight death while worrying about their careers and personal lives.”

He also said the formula has morphed over the decades, now devoting less attention to patients and ailments, and instead incorporating a greater focus on high drama and unrealistic scenarios. “In the context of all the things we hear in the news and the concerns that people have in their everyday activities with Obamacare and things related to it, they see things like this, and it reinforces their sense that something is wrong—that you have to be lucky and on the right day to find the best doctors.”

Luckily for us, he concluded his speech by saying this was not the truth: generally, doctors are competent and reliable. Then what Turow believed to be just a lecture turned into an award ceremony. He was presented with the John P. McGovern Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions to health communication.

A scene from Grey’s Anatomy (press photo).


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