Medical TV shows that made doctors cringe

By Jonathan Ford Hughes
Published September 23, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Some shows have taken steps to hire consulting physicians to work with their writers, but television is bound to get medicine wrong once in a while.

  • These four shows attracted attention for their inaccuracies and misconceptions.

Doctors and other healthcare professionals tend to fall into two camps: Those who enjoy a medical show, and those who can’t stand them. For those in the latter camp, the last thing they want to think about when they come home from work is more work. For those in the former camp, perhaps you find some enjoyment in pointing out everything medical comedies and dramas get wrong.

These shows have improved over the years. Some have taken steps to hire consulting physicians to work with their writers. As a result, some medical students and physicians have said that they’ve learned a few things from shows such as House. But despite the attention to detail, television is bound to get medicine wrong once in a while. Here are four TV shows that made doctors facepalm.


ER made physicians facepalm with its use of CPR. Watch enough ER, and laypersons may begin to think that CPR cures cancer. OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but the CPR criticism rose to the level of the New England Journal of Medicine.[] The study looked at 60 uses of CPR, spread out over 97 TV episodes, 31 of which were from ER. In all CPR instances, 75% of patients survived immediate arrest and 67% were discharged. 

“The survival rates in our study are significantly higher than the most optimistic survival rates in the medical literature, and the portrayal of CPR on television may lead the viewing public to have an unrealistic impression of CPR and its chances for success,” the researchers wrote.

"Physicians discussing the use of CPR with patients and families should be aware of the images of CPR depicted on television and the misperceptions these images may foster."

Diem SJ, et al.

Grey's Anatomy

The popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy draws a lot of flack and facepalms from physicians, and even the lay media. Much of the problem stems from the fact that medical dramas have 30 minutes to an hour to wrap up dramatic medical cases. The reality is that real diseases and traumatic injuries are seldom so easily resolved. But the damage has been done.

Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open article concluded that “television portrayal of rapid functional recovery after major injury may cultivate false expectations among patients and their families.”[]

The researchers came to this conclusion after screening 269 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. They compared 290 patient injuries from the show with nearly 5,000 actual injuries from the National Trauma Databank.

The researchers found that mortality was higher on TV (22% compared with 7%). Also, the dramatized patients went straight from the ED to the OR (71% compared with 25%).  Despite their injuries, the TV patients only went to long-term care 6% of the time, compared with 22% of the time in real life. Furthermore, severely injured patients on TV were in the hospital for less than a week 50% of the time. In real life, this happens only about 20% of the time.

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor, which portrays the experiences of a resident with autism, has been widely praised for its good intentions and largely accurate portrayal of a person with autism spectrum disorder. Autism advocate Kerry Magro wrote, “This show has staying power and I can only hope the creators of the show … continue to include voices of those on the spectrum.” The Art of Autism echoed that sentiment, saying actor Freddie Highmore offers a “highly sensitive portrayal of an individual with autism.” 

Like many medical dramas, The Good Doctor does its homework on the diseases and injuries its characters face. But The Good Doctor has taken the additional step of hiring an autism consultant. That being said, the teledrama may provide a narrow understanding of autism spectrum disorder for a lay audience, making a few physicians facepalm. The protagonist has autism and savant syndrome, the latter being rare among those with autism spectrum disorder.

“This series might also reinforce the misconception that autism and savant syndrome always go together,” wrote a neurologist in The Lancet Neurology.[] “Although these film and TV portrayals can lend weight to stereotypes and stigma, we agree … that they can also help raise awareness about the autistic spectrum and the employability of individuals with diseases along this spectrum, as well as about the vicissitudes of their romantic relationships.”

Nurse Jackie

Nurse Jackie is perhaps one of the most polarizing medical dramas of recent history, and that tells us that perhaps it’s onto something. Nurses have mixed views on the show, but many value its nuanced portrayal of hospital life and work.

“Jackie’s ignoring of traditional ethical principles in nursing practice is shocking. But her caring and sense of advocacy for her patients come through strongly,” wrote one RN in an Online Journal of Issues Nursing article.[] Intentional ethical ignorance might include the time Jackie flushes a rapist’s severed ear down a toilet, or has sex with a hospital pharmacist on lunch, or forges an organ donation form. Without spoiling too much, the series centers on Jackie’s opioid addiction. While some feel that the show makes light of a serious problem, others point out that Jackie’s drug use is not without consequences for her patients, her family, and herself.

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