Medical television has mass appeal Shows like ER, Grey's, Scrubs & House garner Emmy's and fill the major networks' prime-time slots. The Discovery network has a 24/7 health channel and live surgery can be found regularly on TLC and E!. Even the non-medical shows often focus on medical issues from legal issues surrounding HIV testing and treatment (Law & Order), to portraying a president with MS (The West Wing). Surveys show that the public believes the medical messages conveyed on television, but are they accurate?
The answer is sometimes. Many shows have an MD as associate producers, or at least available for consult, but often times, for the sake of drama, or lack of judgment inaccuracies, both subtle and glaring make it on air. Comatose “patients” (i.e.“Mike Delfino” on Desperate Housewives) often appear as "Sleeping Beauty" — well-groomed, muscular and tan. The reality is rarely so pretty, often requiring intubation, feeding tubes, IVs, and sever muscle atrophy. Furthermore, fictional comatose characters nearly always awake with full mental capacity (along with their good looks). In reality, most comatose patients never recover, or do so only slowly, often with serious mental impairments caused by the trauma that brought on the coma in the first place.
On a lighter note, an entertaining article for the AP by a fellow PennMed student, grades the prime-time shows on their medical accuracy - click here to see which show earned honors, and which is barely scraping by with a low pass.
Fishman JM, Casarett D. 2006. Mass media and medicine: when the most trusted media mislead.Mayo Clin Proc. 81:291-3.
Casarett D, et al. 2005. Epidemiology and prognosis of coma in daytime television dramas. BMJ. 331:1537-9