Do Doctor Dramas Make for Bad Docs?

Photo: a study that suggests that young doctors who watch MEDICAL DRAMAS may be influenced by the shows

Doctors have long had a prominent place on the American television screen, from the concerned Dr. Welby on "Marcus Welby, M.D." to the frantic pace of "ER" to the torrid love lives of the doctors on "Grey's Anatomy."

But while attention has focused on what these shows say about physicians -- and what they lead people to expect from their doctors -- worry over what young doctors and doctors-in-training learn about their profession from medical TV shows is growing.

"I see students all the time who show up and act like their favorite doctor on TV," said Dr. Elizabeth Sinz, a professor of anesthesiology at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

She noted that despite the hours upon hours of instruction that go into medical school, students will come in with notions about the health care system from their life experiences, and schools need to be prepared to address them.

"People learn from TV, they learn from reading, they learn from what I'm teaching in a lecture. It all has to come together," said Sinz.

In addition, she said, teamwork is often portrayed inaccurately, with television doctors portrayed as much more in charge than they actually are in real hospital emergency situations, where they're part of a team.

Concerns about the public portrayal of doctors, in part, led the University of Chicago to start a class this year for first-year medical students to learn more about the bad habits they may pick up from a variety of sources, not just television.

"There may be elements of the shows, especially the humor, sarcasm and jokes that are fine for TV but inappropriate for the workplace," said Dr. Vineet Arora, an assistant dean at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine and one of the instructors for the course Medical Professionalism in the 21st Century: A Real World Approach.

"Most educators believe that medical students may pick up bad habits in the hospital from more senior doctors," she said.

A Hidden Curriculum

Arora said that med students tend to have two modes of learning -- a formal curriculum, which includes classes, and a hidden curriculum, which includes on-the-job experience, and picking up behaviors and habits, both positive and negative.

By not addressing the negative behaviors, students may feel such behaviors are acceptable as they become doctors, cautioned Arora.

"We noticed that as students progress through training ... the students are more likely to report participating in [negative] behaviors and may feel these behaviors are appropriate."

Increasingly, Arora said, even medical students come up against medical expectations influenced by TV, as they may be consulted for medical advice well before they have earned their M.D. They may also be forced to address impressions people have of them from the media.

"One cannot ignore the impact of the media and medical TV," said Arora.

While she said she does not have data on the subject, Arora said she has found anecdotally from programs the university runs for high school and college students thinking of attending medical school that among these students, medical TV shows have a huge following.

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