How 'Grey's Anatomy' distorts patient expectations

As medical dramas immerse viewers in tales of hospital-based heroism and tragedy, the line between fact and fiction can often be blurred for real-life patients, resulting in skewed expectations and satisfaction, according to a study published in The BMJ.

To determine whether these TV shows were distorting patients' views of healthcare, the study authors screened 269 episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," one of the country's most popular medical dramas.  

The study authors compared how "Grey's Anatomy" portrayed 290 fictional trauma patients with injuries sustained by 4,812 real-life patients across the U.S., using data from the 2012 National Trauma Databank.

Here are four findings from the study.

1. The study found patients were three times more likely to die in "Grey's Anatomy" than in real life — 22 percent compared to seven percent.

2. Most "Grey's Anatomy" patients — 71 percent — went straight from the emergency department to the operating room, compared to only 25 percent of real-life patients. Additionally, the fictional trauma survivors typically returned home. The researchers suggested this portrayal of quicker recovery time for trauma patients could "cultivate false expectations" for real-life patients.

3. A significantly smaller number of fictional patients — six percent — were transferred to a long-term care facility, whereas 22 percent of real-life patients were transferred to a long-term care facility.

4. Although the study authors acknowledge it is unclear whether these TV dramas are clearly linked to patients' misperceptions, the findings offer important insights for exploring patient expectations. "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."

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