The Pervasive Grey’s Anatomy Effect

The scrutiny of Grey’s Anatomy in particular has lent the term “Grey’s Anatomy effect” to the disconnect between real-life and television medicine, but it results from many shows and even films, such as the famous adrenaline-in-the-heart scene in Pulp Fiction that patients believe reflects reality, as Claire Zagorski, a paramedic with Austin Harm Reduction Coalition in Texas, tweeted. Communications and sociology professors have explored the phenomenon as well.

Jae Eun Chung, PhD, from Howard University’s School of Communications, examined the underlying mechanisms of this effect and how television influences a broader range of viewer’s health beliefs by surveying 11,555 people.5 “Findings suggest that heavy viewers of medical dramas tend to underestimate the gravity of chronic illnesses such as cancer or cardiovascular disease and undermine the importance of tackling these issues,” Dr Chung wrote. “Heavier viewers of medical dramas, compared to lighter viewers, also tend to take a more fatalistic perspective about cancer.”

In some ways, resolving misconceptions about cancer might pleasantly surprise patients. Oncologist Suneel Kamath, MD, a fellow at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, tweeted, “Most patients hear ‘chemo’ and think [they’re] going to vomit all day and be bedridden like on television. But tons of patients never vomit once on chemo. I’ve had patients bike miles to work and to their appointments with me while on chemo.”


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In contrast, Dr Chung wrote, “confusion and fatalistic views resulting from cumulative viewing of medical dramas may prevent individuals from seeking health professionals when their health is at risk.” And unrealistic expectations can color how people perceive their experience, such as birthing mothers.

“TV portrayals of labor and delivery totally underestimate the latent phase of labor,” tweeted Sophie Palmer, MD, a resident in obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. “Sometimes people think that as soon as they start to feel any contractions, they will be admitted to [labor and delivery] and have their baby soon thereafter. Latent labor is a marathon that can take days.”

Not understanding how care teams and medical division of responsibilities work can also affect how patients perceive the quality of their care, pointed out Ann Young, MD, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. “Patients don’t realize that doctors have very different specialties and their expertise doesn’t overlap,” she tweeted. “If I tell a patient a surgeon is coming to answer their questions, they will then ask me all the surgery-related questions thinking I should know because I’m a doc.” She said she blames this misconception on House, “where every doctor on the show is apparently a nurse, tech, radiologist, oncologist, anesthesiologist, code team member, [emergency department] doc, and more. Patients don’t realize things happen incrementally and because of a huge team of docs, techs and RNs.” They also don’t realize that doctors don’t typically place intravenous lines, set up pumps, or perform other common nursing tasks, others noted.

Even the top government doctor in the United States isn’t immune to misperceptions, albeit often amusingly so. “My patients think I have an operating room in the White House, and when POTUS isn’t assisting me with surgery, I’m in my office at the Capitol with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] and [Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi] stamping warning labels on cigarette boxes and wine bottles,” tweeted US Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH.

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag