A comparison of the fates of patients admitted to real hospital trauma units, and those shown in the television drama Grey's Anatomy, reveals large discrepancies. The authors of the study worry this may distort the expectations of those more familiar with the TV version than real-life hospitals.
Most of us know TV fiction isn't an accurate representation of reality, even if it sometimes beats “reality TV”. However, the further from our own experience something is, the more we may be inclined to accept the fictional version. Maybe no one expects their doctors to be as preternaturally attractive as the stars of TV medical dramas, but they may be more naive in other ways.
Since 1955 the American Medical Association, and more recently physician consultants, have offered advice to radio and TV shows for medical portrayals, but while this helps prevent individual cases becoming too improbable, it doesn't address the statistics.
Worried about how patients they are working on, and their loved ones, might be affected, a team of doctors from the Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona decided to run some numbers. Over 269 episodes of Grey's Anatomy's first 12 seasons, 290 trauma patients featured. Their fates were contrasted in the BMJ journal Trauma Surgery and Acute Health Care with those of 4,812 random patients from the 2012 National Trauma Databank.
There's actually some good news for people whose expectations are set by TV. On Grey's Anatomy, 22 percent of patients die from their injuries. In real life, that figure was just 7 percent – so much for TV being addicted to unrealistically happy endings.
However, Dr Grey and colleagues are mostly shown working on particularly serious cases – 71 percent of the show's patients are rushed straight from emergency care to the operating theater, while in the outside world it is 25 percent.
On the other hand, if actors survive on TV, they can expect to go home soon, with half staying less than a week and only 6 percent going into a long-term care facility. The real figures are 20 percent and 22 percent. Perhaps studio beds cost more than hospital ones.
The authors acknowledge the constraints of the format. “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,” they write. The conditions on Grey's Anatomy may not be as rare as those on House, but they're still seldom common ones.
Nevertheless, the authors fear satisfaction responses from patients and family, on which hospitals place increasing importance, may be skewed. This seems particularly likely for trauma, where they note there is no opportunity to prepare people beforehand with reliable data.