Medi dramas give patients unrealistic expectations

September 6, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Sept 7 – People love watching television doctors working miracles on patients with mystery ailments or devastating injuries but these medi-dramas are feeding patients unrealistic expectations, experts warn.

Viewers glued to weekly instalments of fictional doctors ordering batteries of diagnostic tests and unorthodox medical treatments can be forgiven for believing that rafts of examinations and aggressive interventions are the norm.

But US experts said hospitals are unable to provide the cure-all solutions found on programs like the rabidly popular "House", starring British actor Hugh Laurie as the maverick medical genius Doctor Gregory House.

Research also suggests aggressively treating some ailments can do more harm than good, they said.

"The shows do tend to be very activist, very interventionist, very aggressive with their care… because action is more interesting," said Andrew Holtz, a medical journalist and author of a book on "House."

"You get the pressure to have aggressive medical intervention that almost always works and that’s just unrealistic."

Not only does such treatment often fail to work, Holtz noted, but sometimes it can have side effects that outweigh the benefits.

"People don’t see that on television," he said, adding that medical dramas contribute to a false conviction that any ailment can be cured.

"People have the belief that if you search hard enough, if you spend enough money, if you find the right doctor, you can get that rescue, that breakthrough, and those things just don’t really happen in the real world."

Medical professionals often provide the background material that television writers use to script the unusual illnesses that afflict their unfortunate characters.

Allan Hamilton, a script consultant for the popular medical drama "Grey’s Anatomy," is also the chairman of the surgery department at the University of Arizona Health Services Center.

"They’ll say ‘we need a disease that looks like a person’s going to die, but then there’s this one thing that tips them off that they need to do further diagnostic tests.’ Or ‘we want a patient who is doing really well and everyone’s really happy and then something goes dreadfully wrong,’" he said.

"I always joke with the writers, you know, ‘this wouldn’t really happen or that wouldn’t really happen’ and then they turn around to me and say ‘yeah, but this is Hollywood, anything can happen.’"

As a medical professional, Hamilton is wary of the effects that depicting experimental treatments can have on viewers.

"Are we going to suddenly raise people’s expectations?… You do worry about that. People see this and there’s a question in their mind, ‘well are there people like that that we could find… is there a House that could fix me?’"

Sandra Buffington, director of the University of Southern California’s Hollywood, Health and Society program, argues that the power of medical dramas is one should that can be harnessed to educate.

Her program receives funding from the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help television writers develop accurate health stories.

"When the drama is compelling, the viewer is completely transported," Buffington said.

"They forget their surroundings, they’re completely in the story, they see the characters as family and friends, almost as loved ones…. They are much more receptive and open to learning."

Buffington’s program has worked with shows including "Grey’s Anatomy" and "ER," but had one of its greatest successes with a storyline about an HIV-positive character on the daytime soap opera "The Bold and Beautiful" that featured information about an HIV/AIDS information hotline.

"The highest peak in callers all year was, we got 5,313 calls in a single day, was the day that Tony told his fiancee Kristen that he was HIV positive."

Buffington acknowledges that the "huge" impact of medical dramas is just as powerful, even when storylines are unrealistic or just plain wrong.

"That’s why we’re in business, because so much of this information is inaccurate or may be outdated."

For Holtz, the most misleading health information on television comes not from medical dramas, but advertisements for prescription medications.

"Television ads are some of the most crisp and concise storytelling that exists," he said.

"They tell this story that if you come, if you get our product, you will have a life that’s full of sunshine and butterflies and romps in the grass. It’s just purely fantasy."


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